Verdict: Rebecca Hall’s performance is the biggest reason to see “Christine,” but this focused portrait of a troubled woman also offers an exacting, emotional punch.
On July 15, 1974, reporter Christine Chubbuck shot herself in the head on live TV during her local news program. The station team cut to black and Chubbuck later died in the hospital.
Chubbuck remains something of a mythical figure, in part because no video of her death exists on the internet; a Vulture article recently dubbed it a “Holy Grail” in the world of dark web death obsessions (only one copy exists, reportedly locked away forever).
Director Antonio Campos reroutes this fascination from her death to its cause in “Christine,” a biopic starring Rebecca Hall in one of the most captivating performances this year. “Christine” is often impenetrable, sometimes maddeningly so, but Hall keeps us rooted with this deeply troubled woman.
Christine is tall and beautiful, but utterly disconnected. She desperately wants love and acceptance but constantly pushes people away, like her crush Georgie (Michael C. Hall), friendly camerawoman Jean (Maria Dizzia) and her loving but flighty mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron).
She works for a Florida news station, heading her own segment reporting Real Issues, like zoning. Her boss Mike (Tracy Letts) wants more pizazz, citing the logic of “If it bleeds, it leads.” Christine struggles against him in vain, vying for a promotion she can only get if she reports on fluff, strawberry festivals and chicken farmers.
Early on I jumped to media sensationalism as a major concern of this film, remembering Mother Jones’s decision to ask for donations, rather than be bought out by a big boss like Mike. Christine’s end– on TV, citing in a monologue the “blood and guts” her boss was obsessed with– may steer us towards that read too, but while we might wander across them, Campos and writer Craig Shilowich aren’t interested in posing such questions. Christine’s mindset is their sole focus. Perhaps this was a missed opportunity on their part, but I appreciate their focus on her character, on the pieces that led to her final violent act.
Does this focus occasionally lead us in circles? Sure. The middle of the film sometimes feels like a stand-still as we revisit the same issues in Christine’s life. Ultimately, though, the ending needs this constant repetition. Without it I don’t know if I would have reacted the way that I did to her death, especially considering how it was handled. I question Campos’ choices in the last minutes of the film; it feels odd to suddenly turn attention away from her. But I still felt shock and grief, and I chalk that up to the film’s obsession with probing her neuroses past the minimum requirement.
“Christine” adeptly portrays her loneliness and her inability to connect. But while all of this may help us understand who she was, it doesn’t help us figure out why she died that way. I’m not sure we can understand Christine. Perhaps depression and suicide are unknowable too, at their cores.
That’s what “Christine” comes down to for me. She’s a mystery, and it can be aggravating trying to figure her out when there’s ultimately no answer. That, in itself, is an important lesson “Christine” can teach us.