The found footage subgenre really has a hard time making a big deal of itself, and, as the kids say, it deserves the shade. Calling it a gimmick is a less worthwhile criticism than calling it a poor gimmick, but the point stands: very few films have managed to develop an altogether convincing reason for the technique, and as of 2015, it has been a good eight years since the last great work in the subgenre (REC). You see, it becomes a gimmick not by its existence but by becoming a crutch rather than an artistic tool, and in Chronicle, it serves as both. The problem, specifically, is that the hand-held camera is only particularly useful in the early portions of the film, and the texture of the technique contrasts somewhat wildly with the film’s eventual climax and conclusion, and that is a somewhat unavoidable pratfall and a pit the film never manages to claw its way out of.
But at first, director Josh Trank certainly uses the hand-held technique for all its grubby immediacy and queasy discovery, relying on its cheap, scraggly qualities to sell the youthful exuberance and camaraderie of his three main characters. They are Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (the irrepressible Michael B. Jordan). One day, they accidentally come across telekinetic powers (how is not important), and their reactions betray their characters. Namely, they are teenagers who see the superpowers as an avenue for loose tricks and playful gestures of friendship and fooling. Here, more than anything, the hand-held camera lends an unsettling immediacy that undercuts the manic, anarchic chaos of the material with a certain naughty outlaw innocence. And, eventually, a naughty outlaw guilt.
These early moments largely work because the disquiet is a background always threatening to emerge from the youthful glee of the material. Early on, Chronicle sells the chaos of teenage life so left out of superhero movies these days, feeling like a by-gone burst of pure confection similar to the flighty energy of Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man film, before that series had to introduce a dose of everyone’s favorite vague gesture of important filmmaking, “serious themes”. Of course, if Chronicle is confection, it understands the cavities all too well; even when the teens are just screwing around in the decidedly non-narrative early portions of the film, we become casually implicated in the danger they cause, the innately unblinking qualities of the hand-held technique serving to render their actions more dangerously than we might otherwise get with a more static camera.
From there, Trank commits to Max Landis’ screenplay, which has a very clear idea of where to pursue this story, and it isn’t necessarily the best one. Andrew is a worrisome sort, troubled by social ostracization and family trauma that ultimately drives him from the everyday glee and worry of discovering extra-human abilities to something darker, something equal parts revenge-fantasy and god-complex. At the least, Trank has the courage of his convictions, moving so far beyond the artificial bleakness and challenge of other superhero movies that ultimately always stop before the going gets tough. Chronicle sets up a gambit and fulfills the conclusion, so let no one say the film doesn’t take us all the way there, but in the day and age of morose comic book films that long ago lost the meaning of the word “pop”, some of the drama feels fatalistic and predetermined. The handheld camera that ought to convey life does exactly this, but the ragged qualities of the chaotic swerves and tilts only contrast with the somewhat stagnant, literary, composed forward push of the material.
At some point, in other words, Chronicle becomes less interested in youthful chaos and more interested in fulfilling its straightforward narrative ambitions, and although the ever-moving camera helps the second half of the film seem a little more restless than it actually is, it doesn’t fit the necessities of the material in any meaningful way. Episodic chaos (the film’s best scene involves the three playing around in a toy store) moves into an ordered narrative, and if the hand-held camera is useful for anything, order is not it.
Put another way, Trank understands his youthful characters perfectly, and when he is simply watching them be themselves, his camera feels like part of the fun, and, importantly, a commentator on that fun, a critic of the characters for their smug neglect for everyday society. But the Shakespearean tragedy of the second half, in comparison to the casual implication in the early stages, is wildly over-blown and runs out of steam way before the film arrives at its fateful conclusion. When the script feels the need to turn DeHaan into a villain, the film is forcing its punches and loses some of the traction and the everyday chaos. It starts to become just another film with a gimmick, and a gimmick with little, too little, to say about the everyday narcissism of young directors holding a camera as a manifestation of their egotistical superhero drive. At a point, the only thing keeping the film from collapsing in on itself is the immediacy and fire of its three leads, who all rise above and announce themselves as scruffy young talents with an eye for nervous energy. Would that Trank’s film had maintained that energy all the way through. Chronicle just can’t resist being bigger than it really ought to be.