Thursday, January 5, 2012


Errol Morris plays the highbrow muckraker in Tabloid, a stomach-churning documentary about Joyce McKinney, the loopy southern belle notorious in the 1970s for kidnapping a young Mormon missionary, chaining him to a bed and then making sweet love to him (her story) or raping him repeatedly (his story). Mix in a sensational trial, revelations of McKinney’s secret life as a call girl specializing in bondage, and her attempt to skip bail disguised as a deaf-mute, and you have a tale straight from the wettest dreams of the gutter press. It’s juicy stuff, and Morris makes the most of it, conscripting two tabloid reporters to provide some colour commentary and flesh out the lurid details. Even decades after the fact, one of the men still can’t help but titter with glee at the mere presence of such salacious—and saleable—words as “spreadeagle” and “chains” (or, to use the exclamatory style of the film itself, “Chains!”).

The director himself is all too happy to climb down into the gutter, and the film mirrors the crisp snarl of a British tabloid at times. Glib animations and sarcastic film quotations illustrate key events, while Morris pokes holes in McKinney’s story whenever it occurs to him. (A notable early example comes when the woman’s dreamy vision of her Prince Charming is countered by the scoffing of one reporter, who recalls the Mormon weighed three hundred pounds and walked with a sad shuffle.) But for better or worse, the film is dominated by McKinney’s voice, which is by turns narcissistic, nakedly dishonest, and downright delusional. I doubt there’s much to be gained from confronting her—it’s never wise to wake a sleepwalker—but there’s not much of worth to be gained from just letting her ramble either. Morris is little better than the reporters giggling over the naughty bits, and he allows this disturbed woman’s self-deceptions to ride roughshod over the film. Indeed, this may be the film’s greatest success. If nothing else, I understand what it feels like to be Joyce McKinney’s hostage.

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