When one first hears about Christine Chubbuck, it is impossible not to wonder how it all ended up like this. We have become inundated with tragic stories of mass shooters and bombings, but a news reporter committing suicide live on air is especially provocative. When watching Christine, you’re primed to look for the clues, the psychological breaks, that lead to the inevitable end. That isn’t exactly fair for the film, but it is an unavoidable contract—the film wouldn’t exist without the tragedy the audience is waiting to see. For Christine, director Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer) doesn’t make the story the tense psychological thriller you might expect, but a solid character study led by Rebecca Hall’s outstanding performance.
What kind of person jumps from contemplating suicide to committing it in the most public manner possible? Would it be someone as stark raving mad as Howard Beale (Network is an obvious, though starkly different, comparison to Christine, in part because Chubbuck’s story s said to have inspired Paddy Chayefsky to write it) or any number of the quiet, troubled kids we notice only after their tragic actions? Chubbuck is somewhere in between, a complicated character who is often difficult to read.
Typically, films that explore someone in the midst of a psychotic breakdown make it as easy to understand for the viewer as possible through manic voice-over or emphasis on delusions. Christine doesn’t as easily let the viewer inside the character’s head, which is at times a frustrating experience but probably makes for a more interesting film. It is too tempting for a filmmaker to take these shortcuts, allowing for flashy editing or more artistic sound design. With a more opaque directing style, everything has to come out in the performance. Fortunately, Rebecca Hall is able to do most of the heavy lifting.
Over the course of Chubbuck’s breakdown, Hall makes a very difficult psychology as easy to understand as possible. There is a bit of presentation here (she puts on a specific voice and undergoes subtle, but visible physical changes) but it works out better with the character’s line of work. Chubbuck is authoritative as a news reporter. It is easy to see she was really good at her job, but her flaws are apparent, too. And they don’t have to be explicitly pointed out by the film, for example when she is passed up for an important promotion. She’s idealistic and ethical and hard working, traits that translate enjoyable as we see her actively working, no matter the small potatoes (strawberries, actually) of her Saratoga community interest pieces. They are also traits, however, that lead to her frustrations and eventual breaking.
That said, there isn’t one specific big emotional moment but a dozen tiny cuts. Another difficult limitation of the true story narrative is that we know nothing is going to go particularly well for the character. So, when Christine admits she’s in love with the news anchor (Michael C. Hall) or the station owner is looking to poach on-air talent for a bigger market in Baltimore, she is destined to fail. Hall consistently builds throughout the film with each beat chipping away. There are no emotional outbursts or calls for help. Even as she approaches her decision, the film doesn’t stop to explain her mindset and the moments before the storm are especially calm.
Christine could have been a much different film, for both good and bad. Campos is able to portray the whirlwind (to keep the weather metaphor going) that is happening in Chubbuck’s life without playing it in the style of the film. He could have gone the way of Queen of Earth, for example, which is a much more dynamic film. That approach, however, may not have suited this character, a real woman whom we don’t know much about. Campos seems to always defer to the character and in that way to Hall. As the film stands, I can’t imagine a better performance at the center—Hall has a definite grasp on the way the character lives, talks, and reacts. Even as she doesn’t always wear her motivations on her sleeve, it is easy to trust the actress.
Christine may ultimately be known as a performance film, and that’s both slightly disappointing and absolutely deserved. That said, Campos and first-time screenwriter Craig Shilowich deserve a lot of credit for their approach. The film may also forever be linked (at least in the cinephile crowd) to Robert Greene’s experimental documentary Kate Plays Christine (which I have not yet seen) which takes the source into a much different space. It might be a natural instinct to think of Christine as the “safe” version, the Hollywood narrative biopic one, but that doesn’t play out when you see it.