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.