If a film based on the real life story of Christine Chabbuck, a 1970s news reporter who kills herself live on-air seems macabre (isn’t one camera’s documenting of the tragic event enough?), then prepare yourself: two different films on the subject screened at Sundance this past year–the ultra mediated documentary following an actress preparing to play Christine in a film, Kate Plays Christine, and Christine, Antonio Campos’s dramatic interpretation of the can’t-believe-it’s-actually-real tale.
Rebecca Hall stars in the titular role of the latter, hitting all the right notes in the slow and then quick crescendo to Chabbuck’s ultimate breakdown and resulting suicide. Hall’s Christine has got the will and the brains to succeed (her station manager, Michael, played by Tracy Letts, tells her she is probably the most intelligent person on his staff), but no follow through. She resists–or at most only half-capitulates to–Michael’s call for “juicier” stories that will bring the station’s ratings up.
Though Hall’s Christine continues to craft news features that align with her idea of journalistic integrity, she develops an uncomfortable intenseness akin to Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler, a sense that she’s willing to go to any (nefarious) lengths to succeed. Both actors’ eyes signal desperation and need, hard sometimes to differentiate from simple ambition.
Unlike Louis Bloom, Christine, even in her most sincere attempts, is unable to trade bleeds for leads. In a scene that is strikingly reminiscent of a scene in Nightcrawler, Christine uses a police scanner to track down and arrive at the site of an emergency. But, rather than directing the camera in the direction of the greatest injury or damage, Christine guides it to zoom in tight onto the face of a man who accidentally started the inciting blaze, trying to find the human element in the story rather than the shock value.
It is interesting that the two characters should seem so similar; one is a blatant psychopath and one merely mentally ill (in one of her “moods,” as her mother terms it) and under a lot of pressure. Christine’s main crime seems to be just that she doesn’t know how to play the game. It is hard to determine whether her suffering is a result of her grandiosity or her participation in a medium that is quickly losing hold of its noble roots. Regardless, Halls brilliant performance had me cringing and hiding under my jacket, unable to stand the awkwardness of Christine’s increasingly unhinged behaviour.
Campos uses music in the film as companion to Christine’s breakdown. In an early scene, Hall sings along to the radio in her car and her time spent in her bedroom is always accompanied by whatever record she pops on to work to; the camera lingers on this deliberately.
The first signs of real trouble appear when Christine tries to appease Michael’s demands for exciting material. Christine puts her music on as usual, but also cranks the volume up on her newly acquired police scanner. The discordance of sound indicates the beginning of her mental anguish. Her closest friend at work, Jean (played by the lovely Maria Dizzia), tries to bring her back into harmony by inviting her out for ice cream, insisting that playing hooky and singing along to a silly song on the radio will put everything right. Christine declines.
Campos successfully works with the idea that his audience already knows where the film is going, using its inevitability to build tension as he stretches the story out. Christine’s sudden cheerful demeanour in the film’s last few scenes is all the more eerie knowing that her mood is not a turning point as the result of a therapy session her co-worker (Michael C. Hall) brings her to, but rather the at-peace resolve of a woman who has decided to end her life. Her last careful preparations seem to last an eternity as we anticipate her finale.
The film ends by revelling in the irony of Christine’s death finally providing grisly ammo for all the news stations, which excitedly cover the story of her death. We are left to deal with the moral implications of our culture’s hunger for catastrophe in the dark with Christine’s coworkers, desperately trying to recite a mantra (“I’m O.K. You’re O.K.”) or sing along to meaningless lyrics in the hopes that the melody will start to make sense again.