Suicide is an unknowable affair for the living, a gruesome act that never fully makes sense to those who didn’t perceive the deceased individual’s depth of pain and are left with shock and disbelief. It is something that defies complete comprehension. Thus, it’s appropriate that Antonio Campos’ Christine, with a screenplay by Craig Shilowich, is open-ended, proffering no single explanation for the suicide of Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota, Fla., reporter who shot herself in the head during a live TV news broadcast in July 1974. What the movie does show is some of Chubbuck’s life during her final weeks and the personal, professional, romantic, and familial issues that roiled above and below the surface. Although we get a sense of the woman, the movie indicts no particular event as the reason she took her own life. Her garish suicide is, ultimately, as unknowable as it is sensational.
Rebecca Hall gives an extraordinary performance as Chubbuck, and this is what keeps us tuned in to the movie more than the storyline, whose conclusion has been foretold by history. There’s always been a ghoulish quality to our fascination with her on-air suicide, and any biographical/psychological study has to confront its exploitative impulses. Christine offers us bits and pieces of the things that were feeding the reporter’s anxieties, and along the way paints a believable portrait of a woman in crisis, but the filmmakers never fully answer why it’s important to share her experience with the audience. Yet, Chubbuck is certainly in the zeitgeist because Christine joins Kate Plays Christine as two movies out in 2016 based upon her life. (Both movies also premiered at Sundance 2016.)
Hall plays Chubbuck with a discomfiting mix of self-abnegation and brash initiative. Always trying to improve her skills and advance in her career, she is also beset by damaging self-criticism and social awkwardness. A 29-year-old virgin, she has a big crush on the news anchor (Michael C. Hall), but does nothing about it. She lives in close quarters with her mother (Smith-Cameron), suffers abdominal pain from an ovarian cyst, and seems to undergo serious mood swings. Her news director (Letts) berates her to fall in with the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos, which she rejects, and the whiff of sexism is in the air. Hall’s facial control gives expression to her tensions, which can also be observed in the character’s gait and physical movements. Campos often shoots Chubbuck in shadow, as though she were a hulking silhouette, present, but only in outline. Christine also faithfully re-creates the Seventies in its clothing, music, and cars. It’s a lovely period piece that also captures a good sense of the TV news business and its evolving technology. And lest these things pass unnoticed, the film closes with the “Love Is All Around” theme music from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Fascinating, troubling, and dutiful, Christine, if nothing else, houses a great performance.
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