Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review: "Christine"

Director: Antonio Campos
Runtime: 115 minutes

My apologies to Stephen King, but the name 'Christine' belongs to Antonio Campos now. Or at least, it initially belongs to Mr. Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich, as they dramatize the downward spiral that led Christine Chubbuck to shoot herself on live television. But move beyond the architecture of Christine, and the same belongs, appropriately, not to Mr. King, Mr. Campos, or any man at all. Instead, it finds note-perfect ownership in British actress Rebecca Hall, who sits at the center of this compelling character study built around her towering performance.

I've been a fan of Hall's work ever since her first breakthrough, as a love interest for Christian Bale in the thriller The Prestige. Amid starry names like Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, and Scarlett Johansson, Hall managed to make her mark in what could have been a throwaway role. Since then, she has largely stuck to smaller fare (including the lovely Please Give, in which she's excellent), never quite forcing her way into the conscience of the American movie-going public. Hopefully Christine, arriving 10 years after The Prestige, changes that.

Chubbuck's story is an easy one to mine for cheap tragic theatrics, but Christine makes the wise decision to dramatize the reporter's life, rather than attempt to recreate it. That leaves Campos, Shilowich, and Hall tremendous room to mine what we know of Chubbuck's life for an absorbing look inside a complex woman who is defined by more than her tragic end. Gangly and stilted, Hall's Chubbuck is not the warm, easy-going type. A perfectionist to a fault, she clashes regularly with her station manager (Tracy Letts) at the local Sarasota news station, never letting up even when she should take a hint and back off. When we first see her, she's practicing for an imaginary interview with President Nixon, and asking a co-worker (Maria Dizzia) if she nods her head "too sympathetically."

Amid the shifting landscape of TV news, Chubbuck struggles most with the knotty dilemma of how we present ourselves to each other, and how we feel others perceive us. Though Shilowich's screenplay is sporadically on-the-nose, it largely provides a gripping series of obstacles that push Christine to her breaking point. Such a straight forward march toward death may sound like a grim slog, but Shilowich finds moments of awkward humor that keep the film from drowning in depressive moods. A perky, bubbling score contributes to the flashes of levity as well, without becoming distracting or overbearing.

Yet even if Christine were a tonally one-note exercise in misery, it would still be worth it thanks to Hall. With her rigid posture and grating voice, Chubbuck isn't an easy protagonist to latch onto, but Hall is transfixing throughout. Lesser films and performances would be all about the look and the voice, but Christine pushes right past that, and subtly digs into the underlying mental health issues that eventually took hold. Whether fighting with her hippie mother (J. Cameron Smith) or trying to pitch a news story, Chubbuck is a hard presence to ignore. Hall's unwavering stare, coupled with her unsteady mask of a face, keeps up an icy front while allowing bottled up emotions to flood out. It's immensely subtle, yet still hauntingly expressive.

Only at the story's end do the limitations of the script become apparent, although not to the point of undoing the film's accomplishments. This is a performance vehicle through and through, with the larger issues of mental health, self doubt, and workplace sexism only marginally explored as they suit the story's needs. There's also the matter of the film's final 10 minutes or so, which end Christine on a puzzling note. Rather than conclude with either solemn remembrance or bitter irony, Christine's ending takes a stab at, well, I'm not quite sure. There's a "point" in there somewhere about the role of TV and entertainment and news, but it never really lands. It's a bizarre pivot for a film that seemed to understand its limitations. You had me at Rebecca Hall giving the best performance of need to push for more.

Grade: B

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