Thursday, October 13, 2016

Movie Review: Christine

Directed by: Antonio Campos.
Written by: Craig Shilowich.
Starring: Rebecca Hall (Christine Chubbuck), Michael C. Hall (George Peter Ryan), Tracy Letts (Michael), Timothy Simons (Steve Turner), J. Smith-Cameron (Peg Chubbuck), Maria Dizzia (Jean Reed), John Cullum (Bob Andersen).
Christine tells the story of Christine Chubbuck – the Sarasota, Florida news reporter, who in 1974 kill herself on live television. She has become famous for that one act – and that act alone. Antonio Campos’ film tells what happened in the months leading up to that shocking, infamous moment – and does so in a way that both highlights the specific mental breakdown that drove Chubbuck to do what she did, as well as the casual, everyday sexism faced by women in the news room at that time (and given what Roger Ailes has been accused of, today as well), as well as the decline in the quality of news – which isn’t something that happened overnight, but started decades ago. It is a chilling, disturbing film – anchored by an exceptional performance by Rebecca Hall, which turns what could have been an exploitation film into something deeper, darker and more haunting.
In the film, Christine is played by Hall as a driven woman – someone committed to doing high quality reporting, on issues that matter. Her boss, an old school chauvinist named Michael (Tracy Letts) wants harder hitting stuff – violence and blood, and it doesn’t matter to him that Sarasota isn’t a particularly violent place, the ratings are in the crapper, and he needs those stories. When word goes around that the station owner has just bought another station in Baltimore – and is looking to move some of his on-air Sarasota talent to the much bigger market, Christine is driven to get that promotion, but is also torn between doing the type of crap Michael wants, and doing what she believes in.
Yet, even in the earlier scenes of Christine – where she mostly seems normal, there are signs that something is not right. She is constantly complaining of stomach pain, but won’t see a doctor. She still lives with her mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), although she refuses to call her mom (what makes this even stranger, is that we learn that Christine has moved around a lot in the last few years – most recently from Boston – and mommy always seems to be right there). There is a definite crush she has on George (Michael C. Hall) – the somewhat dim news anchor, although the pair of them seem to barely interact. Hell, we are introduced to Chubbuck as she sits alone in the studio, recording herself interviewing Richard Nixon. How much of this is just regular quirks and oddities – and how much is signs of legitimate mental illness? Only throughout the movie will we find out.
This is clearly Hall’s best performance to date – finally fulfilling the promise of her earlier work in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Red Riding 1974, The Town and Please Give. Here, she plays Chubbuck as a high functioning person, with a definite mental disorder. It should be obvious to those around her, but very few of them seem to pay all that much attention to her. They assume she’s just driven – but there’s more going on beneath there. As the film progresses, she unravels in more and more obvious ways – the early competence at the news room gets called into question with her pitch of “re-enactments”, and increasing paranoia and mood swings. Hall plays Chubbuck almost like a frightened animal – cornered and trapped, not sure whether to fight, flee or give up. There is a brief moment when things seem like they could be looking up for her – George actually asks her out – but as it becomes clear what his intentions are (and, to be fair to him, it isn’t anything horrible), she unravels further – producing a rather sad revelation she makes to a complete stranger – and pretty much seals her fate. The ending – which we all know from the beginning (and, after all, the film wouldn’t have been made without) is shocking – but also tragic by that point.
Hall’s performance is great to be sure – but the film is not just a one performance showcase. For one thing, Michael C. Hall is great as the personification of the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” ethos of the 1970s – well-meaning but oblivious to those around him, and their feelings. Letts proves once again what a tremendous actor he is – his role as Michael doesn’t quite have the depth of his work earlier this in in Indignation – but he’s great once again.
But it’s deeper than that as well. Campos’ previous films as director – Afterschool and Simon Killer – have been provocations as much as anything else, and uncomfortable ones at that, not how technically assured they were. In Christine, he keeps the icy tone of those film in many regards, but dials back the desire to shock the audience – and instead gives us a more sympathetic portrayal of Chubbuck than I would have thought him capable of. You know the end is coming, but you pray you are wrong. Then, I think Campos does an interesting thing – he keeps going, for just a scene past where we expect the film to end – you assume the film will end on a literal BANG – but Campos doesn’t do that. Instead he follows a relatively minor character – a friend of Chubbcuk’s from the news room, who through the course of the film does try to help her, before getting her out of the way before Chubbuck can bring her down with her – home, and what she does is really rather cold and chilling. I know some see this scene as a rather superficial observation about the difference between reality and the sitcom universe on TV – but I’m not so sure. I think it says something more about that character than we realize – and it isn’t pretty. It is a great way to end one of the more disturbing movies of the year.

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