Magazine article The New Yorker

Powers of Evil

Magazine article The New Yorker

Powers of Evil

Article excerpt

"Chronicle" is a mildly experimental commercial film, and, for the most part, it's loose-limbed fun. The picture takes off from "The Blair Witch Project" and other movies that use point-of-view techniques: we see footage shot by a character's digital movie camera, security cameras, and phones. "Chronicle," however, is not in the grainy, existential, lurching mode of "Blair Witch." Most of it is smooth, and sometimes even beautiful. The principal camera-wielder is Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), a senior at a Seattle high school. His mother is dying, and his father, an out-of-work firefighter, indulges an increasingly drunken and violent temper. Andrew is the kind of morose, self-involved teen-ager who forty years ago would have kept a diary. Now he thrusts a camera between himself and life, videoing his two--and only--friends in ordinary conversation. One is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), a philosophical sort, who drives Andrew to school, and tells him that, according to Schopenhauer, human beings are pure will. (Matt says things like that without ceasing to be a goofy kid.) The other is Steve (Michael B. Jordan, from "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights"), who's popular at school--a tease and a prankster. The boys go to a party at a friend's house and discover a big hole in the ground out back. The hole leads to a cavern, where they find a glowing wall that emits a loud, piercing whine. The next day, they have powers--telekinetic powers. Schopenhauer was right, though not quite in the way he meant: the boys can do anything. The more they exercise their powers, the stronger they get.

To our relief, the boys aren't superheroes. They don't take down Iran's nuclear facilities; they don't levitate Newt Gingrich to the moon so that he can begin building his colony. They're ordinary kids, maybe smarter than most, but they have no plans, no ambitions. Their powers are a lark, so they bonk each other on the head with baseballs, or move a car in a parking lot while the owner is shopping. They screw around with people and laugh about it, but they don't do any real damage. They also fly, launching themselves into freewheeling, exhilarating excursions through the clouds, high above Seattle. Andrew can will his camera to follow him aloft and photograph him; that's the aerial footage that we see.

The writer, Max Landis, and the director, Josh Trank, both in their twenties, are friends who conceived the story together. It's fun to think of these two young men using digital technology to do every crazy little thing they ever dreamed of: Steve sends potato chips arcing in a continuous stream from the bag into his mouth; Andrew becomes a champion juggler and tightrope walker at a school talent show. For a long time, "Chronicle" is a case of erector-set digital technology: tiny rather than large effects; slightly enhanced reality rather than grandiose comic-book fantasy. The silliness of the movie is its strength. But then, about two-thirds of the way through, comes a turn--the dreaded "third act" of screenwriting manuals, when serious meanings have to be wheeled into place. Andrew isn't getting enough satisfaction from flying or becoming a school favorite with his talent act, and sex doesn't work out for him. He decides that he's an "apex predator," without conscience or guilt, who can destroy whatever he wants, and he begins to misuse his powers. The movie turns dolorous and grim--and also spectacular in a conventional way, with cars and buses flung across open spaces. "Chronicle" becomes a cautionary tale: power corrupts. Yes, and digital power corrupts absolutely. Andrew's sense of decency disappears, and so does the filmmakers' sense of humor.

In 1942, the beautiful old city of Lvov, in eastern Poland, on the border with Ukraine, is occupied by the Germans and their Ukrainian allies and stooges. Physically, the city is intact, but the Christian inhabitants, battered first by Soviet forces attacking from the east, in 1939, and then by the Nazis attacking from the west, in 1941, have become largely indifferent, dead-souled, intent on survival and nothing else. …

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