The name Christine Chubbuck may be known mainly to those with the most morbid of curiosities. Chubbuck was a news reporter for a small Florida TV station in the 1970s who became so fed up with her station’s “If it bleeds, it leads” mandate that she gave her bosses exactly what they wanted in the most painful way possible.
After announcing that she would make television history with the first on-air attempted suicide “live and in color,” Chubbuck did exactly that. This tragic tale has now become a powerfully unsettling movie that’s difficult to shake, and is hinged on a remarkable central performance by Rebecca Hall.
The movie unfolds slowly and naturally, following the mundane realities and crippling depression that lead to Chubbuck’s suicide. We see her obsessing over the smallest details of her on-air performance with a mixture of OCD and anxiety. She feuds loudly with her boss (Tracy Letts), demanding more hard-hitting journalism and inspirational stories than the shock-and-outrage segments favored by the ratings. At home, she still lives with her pot-smoking mother (J. Smith-Cameron), who desperately attempts to keep her daughter stable following an unspecified meltdown. She was also a virgin and crushed hard on the station’s lead anchorman (Michael C. Hall) who never quite gave her the attention she craved. A series of motivations for Christine’s final act are presented throughout, but nothing definitive. If anything, all her issues were exaggerated and exacerbated by untreated mental illness.
Rebecca Hall is absolutely remarkable as Chubbuck, crafting a strong and ambitious character riddled with such intense anxiety that she seems incapable of doing anything productive with her endless energy. She can be heartbreakingly open in some scenes (like when she compliments a couple on how happily in love they seem like an observer in a zoo completely unfamiliar with the feelings they share) and painfully closed off in others (pretty much anytime anyone shows her affection). Throughout it all, the actress imbues strength and dignity to the character that is admirable. Christine isn’t presented as some incapable victim desperate for a last resort. She was smart, driven and talented, but too damaged to know what to do with her gifts or how to connect with people.
The script by Craig Shilowich is filled with possible causes of Christine’s dismay (including the overt chauvinism of the era and industry), but never over-explains or needlessly simplifies the tragedy. The film focuses instead on vividly recreating the world of her final days and letting them speak for themselves. Antonio Campos carries that mandate over into his direction. While Campos’ previous films (‘Afterschool’, ‘Simon Killer’) were highly stylized and even abstract, here he keeps things still and observational. The movie has some beautiful shots and a meticulous attention to period detail, but for the most part the director keeps his compositions rigid for Hall’s kinetic performance to bounce around within.
The rest of the cast are all uniformly excellent, especially Tracy Letts’ embittered boss and Maria Dizzia as Christine’s only friend. Some awkward humor around the edges is also very welcome. After all, the tragic ending to this story hangs over every scene as an uncomfortable inevitability.
Perhaps the filmmakers’ wisest choice was not ending their film at the moment Christine’s own story ends. Instead, it continues on and concludes with a scene even more devastating and universal in a much quieter way. While the movie is very much about Christine Chubbuck and her specifically heartbreaking story, Campos also strives to make this a more universal tale of loneliness and the ways it in which can crush and destroy us all, even when there are people all around us. Loneliness is one of the most painfully universal aspects of the human condition for those who can’t avoid it. As devastatingly depressing a viewing experience as ‘Christine’ obviously is, there’s something beautifully accepting about the way the filmmakers capture that horrible state and make it clear that even the loneliest souls out there aren’t actually alone in their suffering.