Unlocking the puzzle of suicide is the dramatic engine fueling “Christine,” Antonio Campos’ darkly probing character study of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota, Florida, newscaster who made national headlines when she shot herself in the head on live television. Slowly pulling the strands of a fraying psyche as Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) deals with thwarted ambition, convulsive moods and crushing loneliness, this is exquisitely made downer porn, girded by a strong cast.
But while “Christine” the movie may leave you in a coldly analytical space about sad people — even its dollops of humor have a chilliness — Christine the woman stays with you, thanks to a career-best performance from Hall that’s stark, thoughtful and mesmerizing. She transforms the highbrow, zoo-like wallow of her surroundings into something resolutely human and heartbreaking.
If you didn’t know who Chubbuck was and how her story would end, you’d have a pretty good idea from “Christine” that life was a pretty difficult thicket for this smart misfit to navigate. As we first get to know her, though, she’s awkward yet dogged, an idealistic local reporter eager to fight her ratings-obsessed boss Michael (Tracy Letts) over keeping her civics-minded “Suncoast Digest” segment a place for pieces that matter, like zoning controversies.
She practices her interview technique (on an imaginary President Nixon no less) and pointedly asks a friendly colleague (Maria Dizzia, “While We’re Young”) if she nods too sympathetically. In her spare time, Christine even performs puppet shows for sick hospital kids. Though she’s a stiff presence on and off camera, and isn’t good at shielding discomfort in her face or gait, there’s an attractive grit to the intelligence that drives her career hopes.
Privately, however, Christine suffers from an ever-growing self-doubt, fed by her mother’s (J. Smith-Cameron, “Margaret”) subtle criticism and romantic success, and by Christine’s workplace crush on ex-jock anchorman George (Michael C. Hall). It doesn’t help that Michael’s push for juicier, “if it bleeds it leads” stories exacerbates her clashes with him, while the station owner (John Cullum, “Northern Exposure”) threatens to pull the plug even as he’s poaching talent for the Baltimore market.
Campos is part of the filmmaking collective that brought us “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (directed by “Christine” producer Sean Durkin) and “Simon Killer” (Campos’s last film), movies marked by an unsentimental darkness. “Christine” is no exception, and their fixed gaze on so damaged a soul isn’t for everybody. Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich are exacting clinicians, careful to a fault in constructing their downhill maze so that one woman’s troublesome mental health is the focus, even as external factors like casual sexism, changing media mores and increasingly bewildered colleagues do their part as well.
The smoke-filled, clubby air of a 1970s news station in turmoil and the choked, sullen-teen nature of Chubbuck’s home life are effectively realized through Scott Kuzio’s production design and Joe Anderson’s cinematography, which recall the shadowy, grainy pall of era-specific Sidney Lumet and Alan J. Pakula dramas. The acting adds just the right color, from Letts’ patrician contempt to Michael C. Hall‘s patronizingly flirty tone.
The movie is Rebecca Hall‘s, though, and it’s a satisfyingly imaginative answer to this year’s other Christine Chubbuck indie, “Kate Plays Christine,” a non-fiction/fiction hybrid that asks if an actor can ever really embody a real person’s narrative. When she’s not suggesting the weight of the world in a crinkled mouth or furrowing brow, Hall is calibrating Chubbuck’s internal disquiet in movingly odd gestures: interrupting a happy couple in a restaurant as if they were specimens worth interviewing, or wandering a work party like a lost child. When she implores her boss to let her report the human side of the catastrophe coverage he so desires, what’s wrenchingly implicit in Hall’s eyes is that human misery is a given she knows all too well; it’s an understanding that the world lacks, that she needs to investigate to save herself.
Hall is so committed and good, she manages to telegram Chubbuck’s most dire choice with the merest change in demeanor, affecting a performed calmness on her secret big day that’s almost eerie. Though Campos’ laser-like focus on Chubbuck as a woman on the verge can sometimes give “Christine” the air of a horror movie — the way he occasionally films Hall, you half expect doors to slam shut telekinetically — he shows welcome restraint depicting his protagonist’s final act, and Hall wisely plays it like a dimming light hastening its extinguishing, rather than as a nut eager for her sensationalized sendoff.
In Chubbuck’s last words to an unsuspecting world before pulling out that gun, she told viewers she was bringing them an “attempted” suicide. Ever the reporter, she had to use that word if, technically, she didn’t truly know the outcome. But it’s also a perfect descriptor for the portrayal Hall memorably lays out, of a life Christine Chubbuck only ever felt she’d attempted, not fulfilled.