Antonio Campos, producer to some of the best darkly intimate portrayals of the human condition in recent years, – Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and James White (2015) – has once again lit fire to the genre with his latest directed feature Christine. Bringing together a stellar cast with a leading actress entering a league of her own, Campos’ quiet film loudly commands attention on all levels of production. Tracking one woman’s descent into self-destruction, Campos intricately blends story, character, and visual intrigue to create a film and character equally disturbing and relatable, and has subsequently given Hollywood the biopic audiences deserve.
Christine stars Rebecca Hall (The Town) as the real life Florida local news reporter Christine Chubbuck, who made national news after shooting herself on the air in 1974. The film’s story, written by Craig Shilowich in his first feature script, focuses on Christine as a passionate and hardworking field reporter, deeply dedicated to her craft. Striving to faithfully capture the human condition within local news, she is thrown off her game when her producer asks her to find more sensational leading stories. Struggling with social anxiety and emotional disconnection, Christine’s unconventional methods of reporting, coupled with tense interactions at work, often leave her feeling misunderstood, and leads her to seek attention in destructive ways.
Hall’s performance as Christine is utterly astounding. Leading slowly and subtly toward Christine’s breakdown, Campos’ film is a reserved character study during its beginning acts. To complement this gradual buildup, Campos uses a muted and soft visual quality to both mirror the small-town story while also indicating the ‘70s era. Despite every other creative element working to silence the film’s subject, Hall’s portrayal is vibrant and labyrinthine. She makes it impossible to tear your eyes away from her, commanding the screen at every turn. From the way she speaks, to the way she walks and stands, Hall uses body language just as much as dialogue to reveal Christine’s interiority. Hall makes her misread social cues easy to track, bringing the audience right into Christine’s emotional journey.
While Christine busies herself in the business of human interest, she completely ignores her own personal needs. Although she is hyper-aware of the social world around her and the way it operates, Christine fails to apply those understandings to her own life and interactions. She is the most sympathetic of characters; the audience watches with baited breath as she misses her marks ever so slightly that these social and professional misfires put her at odds with the world around her. Outside of missing the interest in her human interest stories, such as filming a witness to a house fire and ignoring the fire itself, Christine also misses out on making connections with her co-workers. For her mother (J. Smith Cameron, Margaret), whom she calls Peg, Christine conjures up a romantic relationship with the station’s anchor (Michael C. Hall), but bolts from every friendly advance he makes; she seeks professional assurance from her only work friend Jean (Maria Dizzia, Martha Marcy May Marlene), but offers no support in return.
The only endeavor Christine gives her undivided attention and effort to is her job, and it is this particular imbalance that leads to her unraveling. Unable to please her producer creatively and advance in her field to the degree at which she dedicates herself, Christine begins to lose grasp of her self-control. Campos and Shilowich expertly make Christine’s dark motivations ambiguous to the viewer. It is unclear whether she is acting in support of creating her best work or in defiance of the professional and social worlds that continue to let her down. For this reason, the audience can never be sure that they fully know Christine or her true intentions, creating an especially haunting story and the film’s ultimate exploration of human interest.
Hall’s co-stars, including Cameron, Michael C. Hall, Dizzia, Tracy Letts (The Big Short), and Timothy Simons (HBO’s Veep), are tantamount in their supporting performances. Campos creates a sizable space for character to reign, allowing each actor to imbue sympathy and humanity into their supporting roles. The film does not create a villain out of any one person, but out of the unfortunate missed opportunities for meaningful connection. These detachments are just one of the factors affecting Christine’s psychological issues, but they are also key in developing and coursing her emotional journey.
In support of dizzyingly magnetic performances, Campos’ visual design skillfully executes the feelings of each scene. His “on-camera” shots within the studio create an atmosphere of fabricated humanity. While practicing her on-camera presence, Christine acts out a joke she might have with her interview subject, and creates a banter all on her own. When her friend Jean interrupts, Christine asks if the way she nods might be perceived as “too sympathetic”. There is a clear visible contrast between the on-screen Christine (controllably calculating, sociable, and receptive) and the off-screen, where wider shots expose her distance and discomfort within her own skin.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Christine is simply an indie masterpiece. As an unconventionally understated biopic, it could easily go unnoticed beyond Hall’s performance for awards recognition. Campos presents a mastery over the balance between visual and performance in his character study, and lends a compelling cinematic adaptation to a compellingly tragic human story. Campos does every service to Christine Chubbuck in a film that exceeds expectations by never telling the audience who Christine is, but allowing the story to do so itself.