Chronicle: Dazzling Allegory in Practice Reviewed by Armond White for CityArts

By Armond White
“Ever hear of Plato’s allegory of the cave?,” one teenager asks another in Chronicle. This philosophy quiz was unexpected in the midst of a thrill ride movie but Chronicle is so surprisingly interesting, I wondered if its makers ever saw The Conformist (1971) where Bernardo Bertolucci visualized Plato‘s allegory? When it’s good, Chronicle is less a thrill ride than a deliberation on movie thrills and contemporary youth market tastes.
In Chronicle, debut director Josh Trank uses all the high school adolescent clichés, polished into queer angst (camera geek Dane DeHaan as Andrew who documents his mother‘s illness and his father’s abuse); Obama stargazing (look-alike Michael B. Jordan as student council prez Steve Montgomery); and hunk sensitivity (Alex Russell as Andrew’s very responsible cousin Matt).
It’s commercial formula with a brash spin: Andrew’s snooping camera represents a poor kid’s attempt at both the self-consciousness of the social-media age and Hollywood’s latest cheap trend: using subjective realism as a premise for the horror and supernatural genres. This goes back to Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield–trite exploitations of the hand-held, real-time camera gimmick–but Trank distances himself from both with state-of-the-art panache. Videography by Matthew Jensen makes spectacle the movie’s real subject. Chronicle’s sharp, ultra clear subtle imagery is more compelling than what happens to Andrew, Steve and cousin Matt’s friendship after they encounter a meteorite then develop telekinetic superpowers.
Chronicle alludes to the metaphoric hormonal urges of DePalma’s classics Carrie and The Fury–in fact it’s loaded with pop references. Screenwriter Max Landis throws in plot concepts and gimmicks (like Obama and the cousin’s pursuit of a female video blogger) without ever achieving the concentration on moral quandary and mythology that distinguished last year’s Trollhunter, the Scandanavian upgrade of the witness-to-horror stunt premise.
Landis and Trank only play around with that potential (also tossing in Let the Right One In allusions). But when the three friends discover an ability to fly and play football in the sky, the metaphor for prowess and transcendence blends digital video effects and genuine cinematic spectacle into the damnedest thing since the skydiving scenes in Point Break. From there, Chronicle’s play with spectacle and imagination is almost a fascinating version of Plato’s allegory.

Beyond its gimmicky premise, Chronicle’s visual excitement raises the important issue of how we use and respond to media. When the camera appears to follow Andrew’s p.o.v. or capture his different adventures and humiliations–from spelunking to flying to sex–Trank seems to exercising cinematic form. Like Andrew, he attempts to figure out what to do with this amazing digital-video technique. (Is it accidental that neurasthenic DeHaan resembles a cross between Jonathan Caouette and Todd Haynes?) Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity movies have degraded cinematic form but when the hand-held, real-time stunt isn’t trite the matter of aesthetic purpose and artistic responsible must be pondered, as here. Do modern audiences know about (Godard’s theory on) editing as a political act or, having been raised on television and internet excess, is cutting and camerawork just ignored in favor of dialog-based “content”?
Masterpieces like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Bertolucci’s The Conformist, DePalma’s The Fury and Spielberg’s War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin make aesthetic issues part of their stories–the Blair Witch hoaxes don’t. Trank’s fumbling allegory questions responsibility: The boys realize that their ability to move things and do damage carries an onus (their noses bleed) and cousin Matt comes up with rules which Andrew defies when enraged. Lacking consistent follow-through (Landis never explains the source of the boys’ powers), Chronicle deteriorates into a destruction-of-Seattle finale (eventually trashing Trank’s subtle references to Nirvana’s cheerleaders-in-hell music video Smells Like Teen Spirit).
That Plato question is smart-assed. Chronicle superficially philosophy as it also superficially questions violence while exploiting Hollywood’s violent trends the trends. Smart-alecky Landis invokes the Apex predator theory as if to explain Andrew’s anxiety before defining it in dramatic terms. Chronicle’s frustrating misuse of dazzling cinematic technique raises the question of the era: Do youth audiences know what cinematic form is for?