It doesn't take great insight or a great amount of time to see why Chronicle has been hailed as a breath of fresh air since it was released some 10 days ago. Writer Max Landis provided an excellent if not terribly original story and director Josh Trank followed through on that, delivering a gripping tale of three high school friends who stumble upon telekinetic superpowers and then grapple with how to use them.
Sheepish and forgettable Andrew Detmer, played by Dane DeHaan, is the driver of this vehicle, the eye at the center of a surprising storm that is about to be unleashed on the greater Seattle area. He's a character that we've seen a thousand times before, though I'm not quite sure if he comes from a horror movie or a quirky teen sex comedy. He's shy. He has few friends -- his cousin Matt Garretty, who drives him to school every day, hardly even qualifies. And he has a lousy home life; his family is short on cash -- his mother in great pain from a grave ailment and his father, a physically abusive alcoholic, providing the only income courtesy of an insurance settlement.
His father's abuse, it seems, is the reason he begins filming. (Ah, yes, did I mention that Chronicle is a found-footage movie? More on that later.) But that quickly becomes secondary once Andrew, Matt, played by Alex Russell, and most-popular-kid-in-school Steve Montgomery, played by Michael B. Jordan, go down the proverbial rabbit hole and emerge with unexplained powers, gleaned apparently from a glowing, pulsing bit of rock.
Now Andrew is less concerned with his father and more concerned with documenting the growth of their abilities. They are growing stronger, you see, first assembling legos and then all of a sudden soaring at 30,000 feet; their powers are honed in same way as biceps and triceps, Matt informs us, growing stronger the more they use them. Danger slowly but surely creeps in during their seemingly harmless experimentation, starting when Andrew waves a tailgating truck off a rural highway and escalating from there.
So begins the dark and disturbing transformation of Andrew. He is damaged goods -- the audience will know that from the beginning. But it might not suspect that all that damage will manifest itself exactly in the way it does. Without giving too much away, let's just say he is no protagonist. No, Andrew is more Damian from The Omen than Bruce Wayne, possessed by his powers rather than a demon in this case. That dynamic makes Chronicle much more of a horror film than the sci-fi/comic book fare you might expect going in, so to answer the question I've posed in the headline, yes it is absolutely a genre mashup, drawing on horror influences as much as anything else.
Now, about the decision to make Chronicle a found footage movie. Going into it, I wasn't as fatigued as seemingly everyone else with the format that's become so popular of late thanks mainly to Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield. I am now. Was it really necessary for Chronicle to be shot in this way -- with all the shaky camerawork and so forth? I suspect not. I suspect it might have been a more powerful film, ironically, if it was made more conventionally.
The found-footage format actually struck me as a bit of a crutch, and the only point at which I thought it enhanced matters was during Andrew's final showdown with his father as the camera, which is being maneuvered by the troubled teen himself, creeps in for a closeup. I can't shake the feeling that Landis and Trank could have gotten Andrew's narcissistic sociopathy across without being so heavy-handed, and that's just what making Andrew the documentarian of his own awesome powers felt like for most of Chronicle.
Other than that slight bludgeoning, though, I can't complain. Chronicle despite borrowing a number of different tropes managed to be original in its own way and, yes, refreshing. The three relative unknowns who gobble up most of the screen time -- DeHaan, Russell and Jordan -- were for the most part excellent, particularly Jordan, who also impressed as Vince Howard on the final two seasons of Friday Night Lights. And I appreciated that it didn't try to answer many of the questions posed. What was the source of their superpowers? Why did Andrew's fits of rage result in nosebleeds for Steve and Matt? What happened with the pink-haired girl? We can only really guess.
Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing more from Trank and Landis. Here's hoping the next thing we see from them is anything but Chronicle 2.