In Sarasota, Florida, on July 15, 1974, a 29-year-old reporter named Christine Chubbuck pulled out a handgun during a live newscast and committed suicide on air. The grim event begged for a “why,” urging not only her loved ones but also every single person who heard of it to ponder her motivations for such a heinous public act. 42 years later, director Antonio Campos explores her why with his provocative Sundance-selected drama Christine.
As infamous as Chubbuck’s final broadcast was, it might well be unknown to younger audiences. Yet Campos does little to tip the film’s brutal climax, beginning simply with a “Based on True Events” title card before welcoming us into Chubbuck’s daily grind. At work at a struggling news station, she (Rebecca Hall) routinely battles with her boss (Tracy Letts) over news, and impotently pines for a dashing but seemingly oblivious anchorman (Michael C. Hall). At home, her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) is her roommate, best friend, and anxious caretaker, much to this independent but flailing young woman’s frequent frustration. And with her professional and personal life proving disappointing as 30 approaches, Chubbuck gets another cruel blow, discovering a painful tumor that could risk her health and fertility.
The screenplay by Craig Shilowich steadily stacks up the daily indignities and traumatizing tragedies of Chubbuck’s life in a way that might make her readily sympathetic. But Campos, helmer of such unnerving dramas as Afterschool and Simon Killer, isn’t known for easy, affable heroes. Under his direction, Hall delivers a portrayal that is riveting and nuanced but dedicatedly uncomfortable.
Though admirably determined and nobly focused on integrity, Chubbuck is not charismatic. Socially awkward and even abrasive, she speaks brusquely in a flat, grating tone, whether calling out her co-workers, chatting with her mother, or trying to pitch a besotted couple into being the center of a puff piece. She tromps from place to place sneering rather than smiling. And it hurts to watch her, because as much as Chubbuck desires friends and success, Hall’s compassionate but uncompromising performance illustrates how she gets in her own way in an industry where optics often defeat intention. Yet as she alienates her friends and family, Hall’s bleeding vulnerability keep us connected to Christine.
A suitably chilly aesthetic is painted in pale pinks and sickly greens, bolstered by instrumentals that feel like audible anxiety. Campos’s cut is constructed of fits of fights, frustrations, and foreboding that click with the off-putting color scheme, skittering score, and Hall’s tenacious performance to build a purposely repulsive momentum towards Chubbock’s fatal final choice. It’s a disturbing and dizzying ride.
But beating thick at the heart of Christine is the human cost of “if it bleeds it leads,” an edict that’s become grossly central to modern news coverage. And with this criticism comes the suggestion that Chubbuck, who preferred film to the innovation of tape and upbeat human interest stories to the rise of exploitative crime reports, rebelled against this crass sensationalism by making herself its extreme conclusion. It’s a stomach-churning possibility.
Mishandled, the suicide scene could portray her as a martyr, glorifying the act of self-slaughter. Campos does not shy away from the gore and horror of that moment, but neither does his directions fall into the trap of exploitation Christine criticizes. Instead, he dares us to look at the cold reality of the event, to what could have led her there, and then beyond to the people left behind to mourn her and carry on. This last crucial beat challenges the viewer to not only draw their own conclusions to the “why” of Chubbuck’s suicide, but also to the gut-punching question of “what now?”
3.5 out of 5 burritos
Image: The Orchard