Robert Greene has long occupied the front lines of efforts to rescue traditional understandings of the word “documentary” from rote conventions. In Greene’s films, talking heads and archival footage take a back seat to edgier experiments with real people playing with their identities. The filmmaker’s 2014 feature “Actress” focused on a struggling performer and simultaneously showcased her best performance—in his movie about her.
His followup, “Kate Plays Christine,” similarly toys with performative elements in a non-fiction setting with far more ambitious qualities, pushing the boundaries of non-fiction while questioning its definition.
Audaciously programmed in Sundance’s U.S. documentary competition, which has traditionally showcased unorthodox approaches to the form, “Kate Plays Christine” is one of two projects at this year’s festival to deal with a grim true story: In 1974, 29-year-old Sarasota newscaster Christine Chubbuck committed suicide during a live broadcast, leaving behind a blood-soaked script reporting on her act. Though the Antonio Campos-directed “Christine” (also premiering at Sundance) promises a narrative account of the reclusive Chubbuck’s story leading up to her grim final act, “Kate Plays Christine” takes a radically different approach.
The “Kate” of the title is actress Kate Lyn Sheil, a preternaturally subdued performer best known for sleeper hits on the festival circuit like “Sun Don’t Shine” as well as a bit part on “House of Cards” and an upcoming television adaptation of “The Girlfriend Experience” (incidentally also playing at Sundance this year). Greene’s conceit finds Sheil preparing for the role of Chubbuck, exploring the project’s tangled moral questions and interviewing real-life figures who knew her well. At times Greene nearly smothers the material with his eerie mood as he puts Sheil on the spot (questions about Greene’s male gaze-y perspective on his lead are undeniable), but the atmosphere generally works toward building an ongoing sense of intrigue.
Greene follows Sheil from her straightforward preparations to more exploratory moments rich with ambiguity. When when she speaks with employees at the local station where Chubbuck worked, the mythological dimensions of the anchor’s suicide figure heavily in their relationship to her violent finish.
Opinions vary on whether her actions were preventable. Did an argument with her boss the night before spark her act? Or did her lonely lifestyle fuel her exasperated state? In between recreations of these and other scenes, the speculation takes a number of intriguing turns; Sheil shifts in and out of playing her character and essentially playing herself, grappling with her part. It’s a fascinating mishmash of identities, engendered by Keegan Dewitt’s ominous score and colorful cinematography by the ever-reliable Sean Price Williams (“Listen Up Philip”) that brings an expressionistic quality to Sheil’s conundrum.
But it’s ultimately Chubbuck, who made the scary pronouncement that the network was the first to air a live suicide moments before putting a bullet through her brain, who gets the last word. Her final monologue, repeated several times throughout the movie as Sheil rehearses her lines, becomes a kind of twisted, satiric mantra about the exhibitionist nature of modern media. While her story influenced Paddy Chayefsky to create the outraged news anchor in Sidney Lumet’s “Network,” as Sheil points out, that movie transformed Chubbuck into “this macho, angry man.” Greene complicates the narrative while resurrecting the movie’s ironic attitude toward the infotainment era.
The video of Chubbock’s death, allegedly locked away in some hidden vault but burnt into the memories of her coworkers, serves as an apt metaphor for the movie’s tantalizing themes. Building toward an attempt to recreate her final act, “Kate Plays Christine” explores the unseemly desire to see it carried out, resurrecting the anchor’s own critical perspective.
Sheil is an ideal vessel for the film’s inquisitive style. In a rare moment of wry humor, she asserts, “If a performance of mine is called ‘subtle’ one more time, I think I might lose my mind.” Yet she also discusses her desire to pursue acting as “an outlet for me to be seen,” suggesting that even she hopes to see it through. The beats of the closing moments, as Sheil prepares to perform the suicide, generates a unique form of suspense: There’s no question that the actress is carrying blanks, but the underlying question of whether she’s willing to perform the scene generates a fear of its own.
At nearly two hours, “Kate Plays Christine” meanders through its meta conceit and sometimes drags, but it’s always heading somewhere. As real characters mingle with Greene’s enticing meta-fictional agenda, the movie assembles a sophisticated vision of collective voyeuristic desires. “We are a society of gawkers,” asserts one newsperson as Sheil wrestles with the task at hand. By the end of “Kate Plays Christine,” Greene seems to argue that we’re all complicit in that indictment.
“Kate Plays Christine” premiered this week at Sundance.