By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
A harrowing study of a woman who descends into deep depression, this accomplished drama (based on true events) contains one of the best screen performances you will ever see. Guided by one of the most intriguing young film-makers working today, Christine is a film that deserves to be appreciated by a wide audience.
The year is 1974, and the country is weary and exhausted from the Watergate scandal, a shocking event that stripped much of the population’s trust in their leaders. At WXLT-TV in Sarasota, management and staff want to move on to something new, finding topics that will re-ignite viewer interest.
Reporter Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is determined to locate the positive, putting together stories that prove there is good in the world, especially after what the public have endured over the last two years. Unfortunately these reports are deemed trivial by Michael (Tracy Letts), Christine’s gruff, temperamental boss, who is desperate to find a way to lift the station’s poor ratings.
The constant perseverance to use hope and optimism as a foundation in her reports seems to be at odds with Christine’s personal outlook. Obsessively self-critical, seeing every gesture and comment as a glaring miscalculation on her part, Christine appears to be going through a period of emotional turmoil. There is certainly friction occurring between Christine and her mother Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), who is temporarily staying at her daughter’s apartment. Tensions increase when Peg announces that she has met someone.
Single and socially awkward, Christine cannot summon the courage to ask out news anchor George (Michael C. Hall), a popular presence at the TV station who actually may harbour feelings towards the reclusive reporter. Technical assistant and cameraperson Jean (Maria Dizzia) provides the only calming influence in Christine’s otherwise frustrating work environment.
Michael’s push for more sensational, openly salacious news stories unsettle and anger Christine, and coupled with WXLT-TV owner Bob Anderson (John Cullum) arriving on their doorstep looking for candidates to fill his newly acquired TV station, pushes Christine towards a psychological abyss, one that she may not return from.
Christine deals with a number of themes, all connected to the gradual fracturing and breakdown of a single human being. The change of focus in news reporting, the emptiness felt by the viewing public after being betrayed by their government (not to mention the effects of the Vietnam war), and the male-dominated workplace where women had to toil twice as hard to prove their worth, are all put under the microscope. Some might find it troubling that a real-life person is used as a symbol to explore these various moral and political facets, but the parallels between Christine’s mental disintegration and the country’s particular ills is sensitively and thoughtfully weaved together.
Debutant screenwriter Craig Shilowich ambitiously looks at a time when people’s trust, morals, and love were being eaten away, and sees Christine Chubbuck’s sad journey as a perfect representation of that tumultuous period. Not everything comes together, but it is an impressive first effort.
Shilowich is then lucky to have Antonio Campos in the director’s chair. Making a strong impression with his 2008 feature film debut Afterschool, a striking look at a student’s moral breakdown via modern technology (and featuring a disturbing performance by Ezra Miller, who has gone on to co-star in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and the upcoming Justice League), Campos immediately became a director to keep a close eye on. He followed Afterschool with the equally unnerving Simon Killer in 2012, which covers the horrifically distorted viewpoint of a young American who is visiting Paris. Campos is the ideal choice to bring Christine’s story to life, and he captures her fragmented anguish in patient, disquieting detail.
Campos and his talented technical crew have done a marvellous job in recreating the era, and special praise must go to cinematographer Joe Anderson (Simon Killer, Don’t Think Twice), production designer Scott Kuzio (Barry, Don’t Think Twice), costume designer Emma Potter (Creed, Louder Than Bombs), and art director Molly Bailey (The Trust). Kudos also to editor Sofia Subercaseaux (Nasty Baby, Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus), and composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans (The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Frank & Lola), whose work adds immeasurably to the film’s growingly intense atmosphere.
The acting is superb. Michael C. Hall, who found fame with the TV shows Six Feet Under and especially Dexter, is starting to build an interesting body of film work, the other notable endeavour being Jim Mickle’s under-rated thriller Cold In July. Writer/actor Letts, as he did in Indignation, excels as Michael, likewise Smith-Cameron (You Can Count on Me, Margaret, Rectify) and Dizzia (Martha Macy May Marlene, Orange Is the New Black), as Peg and Jean respectively.
Towering above everyone though is Rebecca Hall, who is astonishing as Christine. Her complete immersion into the role, fully realising this person’s pain and insecurities, is truly something to behold, and is close to being the must-see performance of 2016. It will be a crying shame when Hall is overlooked at Oscar time.
Christine is uncomfortable viewing, as we helplessly watch a lost soul fall apart before our eyes. The overall impact maybe somewhat muted to those who know the story, but there is no denying the film’s potent grip and power, crafted by a cast and crew who genuinely care about its subject.