One of the most delightful things about the work of Errol Morris is his ability to see the darkly whimsical insanity that informs the underside of American life. He began exploring this topic as early as his first film, the pet cemetery doc Gates Of Heaven, and has developed a way to tackle such odd real-life subjects in a way that satisfies our curiosity without denying the subjects of their humanity. He’s spent more time on darker, more sobering subjects in recent years — particularly in war-themed films like The Fog Of War and Standard Operating Procedure — but his most recent film, Tabloid, shows his fascination with the eccentric oddballs that America produces remains intact.
True to its title, Tabloid is a feature-length exploration of a true story that make a big splash in English tabloid papers during the 1970’s. The main subject is Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who feel in love with a young Mormon man named Kirk Anderson during her college years. When he suddenly trekked off to England for missionary work rather than marry her, she assembled a motley group of accomplices and tracked him to England. At that point, she kidnapped her beau and took to him to a countryside cottage for a wild weekend of sex and comfort food.
They eventually resurfaced in London and that’s where the story gets murky. Joyce claims that Kent intended to marry her and went back to his Mormon friends to tell them he was alright. However, he ended up going to the police and accusing her of kidnapping. She went to prison and the resulting trial ended up becoming the top story in the U.K. tabloids. Once the bloodhound reporters of their press dug into the story, they uncovered a lot of material that Joyce would have wanted kept quiet — and twists pile on top of twists as this real-life tale takes some turns that would seem too much for even the craziest of b-movies.
If you want to view Tabloid purely for oddball entertainment, you can get a four-star experience on that level alone. Everyone who speaks to Morris’ camera is entertaining to watch, with several participants being great raconteurs: Troy Williams dishes enthusiastically about his perspective on what it was like for teens in the Church of Latter-Day Saints and tabloid reporter Peter Tory is hilarious thanks to his ability to be condescending towards his subject and sleazy all at once (note his fondness for repeating the saucy phrase “spread-eagled”).
That said, McKinney is the belle of the ball here. She has since complained about the treatment she gets from Morris in this film — stories about the film’s release often mention her going to screenings, heckling the screen and then doing impromptu press conferences afterwards — but Morris mostly just hangs back and allows her to tell her story in all its sociopathic glory. It’s clear she has been waiting decades to supply the third act for her bizarre saga and she digs into the task with the kind of melodramatic fervor not seen on the big screen since Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were hamming it up in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
It helps that Morris’ technique packages the material in an audience-ingratiating manner. He eschews the re-creations he was known for earlier in his career, instead using graphics and vintage film clips to provide counterpoint (and in some cases, exclamation points) for the verbal history provided by his subjects. He also keeps control of the material, delivering the kind of unexpected whiplash twists that you expect from the best Hollywood thrillers in the second half. At some point during the running time, your jaw will hit the floor. Maybe more than once.
That said, there is more to Tabloid than the cheap trash-paper glory of McKinney’s story. Despite all the lurid details and exhibitionist fervor of Ms. McKinney, there’s a lot of mystery inherent in this story and Morris directs the viewer’s attention to it. As much as she shows us, there’s a shadow side to the main subject and her story that we’ll never know — and Morris leaves the audience the room to make up their own minds about the murkier parts of her story. The film also explores the malleable nature of reality, especially when it is filtered through the press: the section where two tabloid operatives explain their different takes on the McKinney story — and how each is defined by a particular profit motive — is fascinating stuff.
In short, Tabloid does a great job of capturing a certain sort of all-American crazy and how it is possible for an anti-celebrity like Joyce McKinney can seem to show us everything while still hiding the important parts that would allow people to make sense of her bizarre journey. No matter how you view it, Tabloid is one hell of a ride and proof positive that fiction will always lose out to reality in the strangeness sweepstakes.