Lately, documentarian Errol Morris has focused his films on terribly serious subject matter. 2003’s “Fog of War” centered on Robert S. McNamara, one of the chief architects of the bloody, morally nebulous Vietnam War, and 2008’s underappreciated “Standard Operating Procedure” told the story of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal through the photos themselves. The films were great, but they lacked the playfulness and oddball charm of earlier Morris films like his debut “Gates of Heaven” (about a pet cemetery) and 1997’s “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,” about a bunch of weirdos with amazing professions (lion tamer, topiary artist, robotics expert, and a man devoted to blind, mutant-looking mole rats). So it’s something of a relief that Morris has largely left the dark stuff behind for his latest film, “Tabloid,” a gripping, thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud love story that turns out to be one of the documentarian’s very best films.
The main focus of the documentary is Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming beauty queen with the kind of aw-shucks spirit and corn-fed good looks that often gets nice girls into trouble. But how nice is Joyce? In the late 1970s she fell in love with Kirk Anderson, a tall, goofy-looking dude, who mysteriously vanished after they started dating. It turns out that Kirk was a Mormon missionary and had been stationed in England so Joyce, full of love that clearly bordered on obsession, went to England to retrieve him (with a couple of friends or, depending on who you believe, co-conspirators).
Now, here’s where things get strange – conflicting reports claimed that Kirk had either gone with Joyce willingly or that Joyce had abducted him. Afterwards, they retreated to a cottage in the countryside and, again, depending on who you talk to, either spent a blissful weekend away together full of romantic lovemaking or… Joyce raped the shit out of Kirk. (A claim that, to Joyce, “makes about as much sense as sticking a marshmallow in a parking meter.”) Regardless, once Joyce was found out, she was promptly arrested and a media firestorm erupted, with the press dubbing it the “Mormon sex in chains” story (since, whether forcefully or as an act of consensual kink, Joyce restrained her boyfriend), full of exclamation points and wild accusations.
Most of the movie is concerned with the case, with Morris interviewing Joyce extensively, as well as other people who were connected to the investigation – namely a pilot who flew her to England and a pair of British journalists who were covering the story for the gossip rags. (There’s also, tangentially, a young gay ex-Mormon who goes into great detail about the vaguely sci-fi-ish nature of the religion as well as some of its basic tenents.) Scenarios are retold by multiple parties, with stories piling up, one on top of the other, like a documentary version of “Rashomon.” Who will, could (and should) you believe? The disreputable journalist? The bubbly former beauty queen? The all-American pilot?
Well, it doesn’t really matter. Joyce is so compelling, as both a subject and an interviewee, that you just kind of go with it. She veers between sweetly nutty and hopelessly romantic to shades of the darkly sociopathic and attention-hungry…and back again. You’ll cringe and giggle in equal measure. (The other interviewees, while less fascinating and outlandish, do much to fill in the hoopla that surrounded Joyce, and the visual tactic Morris and his editor Grant Surmi apply – with large, bold-faced words superimposed over the subjects – marvelously amplifies the who-do-you-trust nature of the film.)
But if you think that the story ends after Joyce’s trial (which includes, amongst other things, her attending gala Hollywood parties and a particularly goofy flight from justice), well, think again. The last act of the movie, which is far too juicy to give away here, takes an unexpected, totally inspired turn, and the less you read about the film beforehand, the better. Morris chronicles the newer revelations, which are far less scandalous but just as bizarre, with his usual clear-eyed attention to detail and knack for emphasizing the absurd without it ever feeling like exploitation. You never get the impression, no matter how funny things get, that Morris is looking down at Joyce, or that he’s trying to undermine her quest for love, which at the end of the film feels genuinely real. When she finally finds it, in the most unlikely of places, you can’t help but be happy for her, and for the filmmaker, too. It’s been a long time since he’s had a subject this outrageously wonderful, and a film this outrageously good. [A]