Director: Antonio Campos
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith-Cameron, Timothy Simons, Kim Shaw, John Cullum
MPAA Rating: (for a scene of disturbing violence and for language including some sexual references)
Running Time: 1:55
Release Date: 10/14/16 (limited); 11/18/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 17, 2016
Before shooting herself on live television on July 15, 1974, Christine Chubbuck wrote two things: 1.) the statement she would make before pulling the trigger, and 2.) the news copy for reporters to read, detailing her attempted suicide after the fact. The first suggests something about motive, even if such a concept is difficult to comprehend in regards to suicide in general and specifically in this case. The second says something about the type of person Chubbuck was before her last moments. In Christine, the second item is the more important of the two, and that makes a significant difference from what the film could have been.
Craig Shilowich's screenplay dramatizes what happened to Chubbuck in those last months of her life. The easy, exploitative, and potentially sensationalistic approach to this material would see her suicide as a puzzle that needs to be pieced together. If only, we usually say after such a tragedy, we could point to the one thing—one event or one thought—that caused a person to commit suicide, we at least would have an answer—something that helps to make sense of something so senselessly tragic and seemingly inexplicable.
Undoubtedly, the temptation to watch the film with that mindset is strong, because there must be a reason. The written statement that essentially amounted to Chubbuck's suicide note was rather sarcastic: The news has decided its business is to deal in violence and misery, and here is this reporter with an exclusive.
The statement itself is crystal clear. What followed seemed to go against the point of the message. There must be something else there.
What Shilowich and director Antonio Campos show us, though, is a story that is completely ordinary until that climactic act of violence. Even it is played as something of an afterthought—a sudden, unexpected event in the background that happens in the middle of the normal hustle and bustle of an already confusing day in the studio during a news broadcast. The focus is not on what happens. It's on how people react to it. By the time the film ends, Campos and Shilowich have shifted the story's concern so subtly that its message has little to do with Chubbuck, her final statement, or what all of it—whatever signs might have been there, the message, the new copy, the suicide itself—might have meant in the grand scale of things.
In the film, Christine is played by Rebecca Hall in a performance that goes a long way toward solidifying the film's approach. Hall never plays Christine as a victim. There's a sense of determination in everything her character does, even if it's having to remind herself via a to-do list that she needs to have determination. She's a consummate, strong-willed professional—a television news reporter, host, and sometimes anchor for a network affiliate in Sarasota, Florida, who truly believes in the necessity of her chosen profession.
She covers local stories of civic interest, although her boss Michael (Tracy Letts) is pushing the newly fashionable but old chestnut: "If it bleeds, it leads." This puts Christine at odds with him, and their arguments during meetings and in hallways are the stuff of office legends. To top it off, the boss wants to transition field reports from film to video. Christine prefers the old way, and she keeps procrastinating when it comes letting Jean (Maria Dizzia), an editor and friend, teach her the new system.
Christine is about to turn 30, and she lives with her mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron). They don't talk too much. Christine resents her mother's hippie lifestyle, and Peg will only speak in hushed tones about a mental-health incident in Boston that brought her daughter to live with her.
Christine is single and, we learn later, still a virgin. She has eyes for George (Michael C. Hall), the star anchor of the network, and even though he seems interested, too, Christine distances herself from him whenever he expresses it.
She also has been having intense stomach pain that comes and goes. She insists to herself and others that it's just stress, but her doctor diagnoses her with an ovarian cyst. He can remove the ovary, but it will make it difficult to have children. She does, indeed, want that. She even volunteers at a home for kids with special needs, where she performs puppet shows with lessons that gradually become less and less optimistic.
There are some obvious challenges and setbacks here, and one can see how no one quite saw any signs of depression or suicidal thoughts, because Hall plays Christine as a professional and perfectionist in public. In private, there's another side, although Hall, wisely, doesn't distance that part of the character from the public side. She avoids the clichés and any kind of foreshadowing in her performance. Her Christine isn't a hackneyed "woman on the edge." She is simply a woman trying to do her job to the best of her ability, fighting against professional methods that she disdains, and struggling with feelings of self-doubt and insecurity in the face of an uncertain romantic life and difficult medical news.
On the surface, she is, as far as we can tell, as "normal" as any of us, because she feels the need to hide what's actually happening to her—to protect her career from sexist accusations of being too "emotional," to prevent her mother from worrying too much, to keep the few friendships she does have. There's no single breaking point for the eponymous character of Christine. It's a series of them over time, even before what we see here. The final moments of the film leave the surviving characters to wonder if they could have known and—a more troubling thought—if they tried hard enough to understand before it was too late.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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