There’s no question that the vast majority of stories told today are centered around an evident protagonist, someone who, like us, is flawed, but attempting to fix that flaw. They want something, and they’re having a hard time getting it. We’ll go see that movie, watch that show, or read that book a thousand times over and love it every time. Why, then, would we ever want to subject ourselves to a reverse of that structure? What’s so engaging in watching a character – who already may be more flawed than any average protagonist – walk down a path ripe with depravity and come out even worse?
Whatever the reasons may be, we’ve been doing it for quite a while. Raise your hand if you’ve seen “The Godfather.” We have proven ourselves to be quite interested in antihero/villain centric stories. Television has caught on to the trend: Walter White of AMC’s “Breaking Bad” is nearly a household name by now. And the legacy continues in a theater near you. Enter: “Chronicle.”
Someone wise somewhere once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Hello, over-arching theme of the entire superhero genre. However clichéd the trope may be, “Chronicle” dives a little deeper than what we’re used to with the archetypical superhero story. When the three main characters stumble upon their telekinetic abilities, they don’t exactly take it upon themselves to go out and start moonlighting as vigilantes. On the contrary, they’d rather prank their classmates and play chicken with jumbo jets. But it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt…or someone puts the hurtin’ on.
At the core of this tale is high-school teenager Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), a bullied and powerless young man who’s taken a lot of unfair beatings from life – an abusive father, a mother dying of cancer, endless bullies at school. But Andrew is about to get all the support he needs in the form of an incidental telekinetic power. The question is what happens when the powerless become powerful overnight? Better yet, what happens to an individual’s emotional state when such overwhelming power is discovered?
In Andrew’s case, the answer is ugly. When a sudden ability to distort physics at will enters the equation, his pain and anger are amplified to an unfathomable degree. Andrew’s rage remains subtle and quiet the first half-hour of this cleverly shot found-footage venture, but when he finds that outlet to express distaste for the way he’s been treated, boy does he use it.
In its own way, “Chronicle” is a broad character study, a thought-provoking cause-and-effect metaphor illustrating that what lies inside a person defines the way they use whatever power they possess. And though the film is obviously a fictitious tale, the illustration is unsettlingly insightful. In reality, when we recall any powerful figure in history, are we able to separate them from the decisions they made through their power? Or do we define them by those decisions?
Great power can be sought after or stumbled upon by accident. It can be given, and it can be stolen. But none of this really defines what makes power powerful. The context given to any power lies within the heart of its user. Few of us will stumble upon a massive alien rock underground and develop telekinetic abilities as a result. You know what, I’ll modify that. None of us will. But “Chronicle” hurls the fictional hypothetical at its audience anyway: What if you did? Can you say with certainty what you would do with such power? For me, the thought is a tad bit terrifying. And I think it’s that exact thought that keeps us coming back to this kind of narrative.
The antihero engages our ethical sensibilities in a way that Clark Kent can’t. We may not be asked to agree with him, but we’re challenged to understand why his journey is the way it is. We’re expected to understand why he uses his power the way he does. And in the end, I think the answer is pretty simple. It’s a reflection of his heart.
Perhaps that’s why the idea of incredible power is at once exhilarating and terrifying, and perhaps that’s why this average-Joe-gone-bad story continues to be told. Characters like Michael Corleone, Walter White, and Andrew Detmer beg for our sympathy, yet at the same time their actions shock us. Their stories entertain us, confound us, and ultimately ask us to consider what we would do in their shoes.
“What are you capable of?” Asks one of the film’s taglines. The scary truth that “Chronicle” hints at: If it’s physically possible and your heart is willing, you’re capable of it. The follow-up question I found myself asking is: ”What do I want to be capable of?”
I’ll opt out of telekinesis.
Tyler Hiott is an independent filmmaker from Frisco, TX. He currently resides in Austin and is head writer for the film review organization "Significance and Cinema." You can read more of his reviews at www.significanceandcinema.com.