The equally somber and shocking tale of Christine Chubbuck, the 29-year-old Sarasota news anchor who shot herself on live television during a broadcast in 1974, has an inherent appeal. That much has been demonstrated at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where the story has been featured in two projects — Robert Greene’s meta-documentary “Kate Plays Christine” and Antonio Campos’ more straightforward narrative “Christine,” starring Rebecca Hall in the lead role. While Greene’s project delves into the dicey moral territory of recreating Chubbuck’s suicide, Campos’ version doesn’t hesitate.
An expertly crafted noir-like depiction of Chubbuck’s descent into psychological duress, Campos’ grim character study makes up for an occasionally stifling icy tone with a stunning lead performance by Hall, who turns the would-be suicidal anchor into a figure worthy of empathy rather than outright pity.
Like Campos’ earlier features “Afterschool” and “Simon Killer,” the new movie revolves around a tormented figure gradually led to a violent act. While the other movies treated this descent with a certain degree of remove, Hall brings an urgency to the material by making Chubbuck’s poker-faced figure into a vehicle for media criticism. In a captivating opening scene, she sits in an empty studio, pretending to interview Richard Nixon as she addresses an empty chair. The image succinctly illustrates her desire to report on major issues taking place in the world around her, and the absence of interest from the station to pay much attention.
In her real job, Chubbuck sits at the mercy of cantankerous local affiliate head Bob Anderson (John Cullum) while maintaing a cordial relationship with her supportive camerawoman Jean (Maria Dizzia). Her co-anchor George (Michael C. Hall) goes back and forth between supportive colleague and competition. The only other figure of note in Chubbuck’s life, her overly protective mother, barely comprehends her daughter’s sense of isolation from everyone around her. Eager to present complex stories about the world of today, Chubbuck’s finds herself continually forced into a cycle of sensationalistic reports, but her arguments in favor of more ambitious projects fall on deaf ears.
Campos tracks Chubbuck’s progression toward resentment and depression with a measured approach, though his typically cerebral style is somewhat out of sync with Craig Shilowich’s talky screenplay. Nevertheless, the movie develops a palpable tension as Chubbuck growing anxious about her career prospects and her desire for self-fulfillment. Hoping to get married but romantically inept, eager to innovate but incapable of clarifying her ideas for the network, she seems lost in a series of half-formed conceits. The standout moment arrives when her co-worker drags her to a group therapy session that turns up the suspense at a masterful pace. Campos pushes in on Chubbuck’s face and her eyes bulge so wide it’s a wonder they don’t pop. Hall conveys such astounding desperation that her performance easily outdoes anything she’s done before.
The movie is always a step or two behind her commanding presence. It never makes an entirely convincing case for Chubbuck’s encroaching anguish, to the point where her final act almost registers as an after thought. Nevertheless, aided by a vibrant, searching score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, as well as the brightly lit studio scenery captured by cinematographer Joe Anderson, Campos positions Chubbuck’s insular experiences in a layered universe of frantic exchanges.
Many of the movie’s finest scenes rhyme with similar ones found in “Kate Plays Christine,” which finds actress Kate Lyn Shiel coping with the challenge of embodying her character without exploiting her story. Apparently developed separately, the similarity between the movies speak to a certain thematic consistency to Chubbuck’s radical act. Without endorsing her decision, both movies attest to its lasting power, as well as the more unsettling suggestion that she gave the people what they want.
“Christine” premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.