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Monday, January 30, 2012

Review: Tabloid (2011)

* * * 1/2

Director: Errol Morris

There are people who dismiss the documentary genre as whole, clinging to this idea that they're staid and, for lack of a better word, "boring." If those people sat through just one of Errol Morris' films, I think they would be won over to the genre forever. I have yet to see an Errol Morris film that isn't wholly entertaining and thought-provoking and his most recent film, Tabloid, is certainly no exception. Sensational, fascinating and not a little unsettling, Tabloid is a greatly intriguing and well-made film.

Tabloid is the story of Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who, in 1977, was accused of abducting a Mormon missionary for the purpose of "seducing" him out of what she considered a cult. She refers to this as a "special love story," the British tabloids referred to it as "The Mormon sex in chains case" and "The Case of the Manacled Mormon." In her version of events, she met and fell in love with a mormon named Kirk Anderson, with whom she made plans to marry only to discover one day that he'd disappeared. She tracked him down to England and deduced that he had been brainwashed by the Mormon church so she did what any loving girlfriend would do: she put together a posse and concocted a plan to break him out of the cult. She took Kirk to a cottage in Devon (she claims that he went with her willingly, however she also apparently claims that he was restrained with ropes rather than chains) and was later arrested, causing a media sensation.

What follows is an odd story (odder) involving her flight from Britain disguised as a deaf-mute, the tabloid war over her story and discovery of some of the more salacious aspects of her past, her trial and conviction in absentia, and, several years later, her return to tabloid prominence after scientists in Korea cloned her deceased dog. And yet, for all the events that factor into the film's story, it isn't really about any of them. Rather, it's about Joyce the personality, who obviously amuses and fascinates Morris and it's easy to understand why because she's the sort of character that you would never, ever believe in a fiction film because she would just seem way too out there.

Although the "Mormon sex in chains case" is Tabloid's hook, Morris isn't particularly interested in separating the truth from various untruths. Kirk Anderson refused to be interviewed and Joyce's co-conspirator, Keith May, died in 2004, so Joyce is the only person directly involved who tells her story, which is that Kirk went with her willingly and then was brainwashed by the Mormons into saying that he was abducted. Jackson Shaw, the pilot she hired to take her to England, does mention that she had chloroform and there is, of course, her own correction that she used ropes rather than chains, but truth of the situation takes a backseat while Morris focuses instead on how Joyce has constructed her own story and image in her head and manages to stick to it even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. She says at one point that a person can tell a lie so many times that they start to believe it, and that seems to be the basis on which she has built her life.

Considered from a distance, Tabloid tells a tragic story - if Kirk's version of events is true, then he's not only a victim who never saw justice (Joyce snuck back to the States before her trial and extradition proceedings were never pursued), but one who was also never truly treated like a victim (when asked directly, Joyce states that she doesn't believe it's possible for a woman to rape a man and the law of the time agreed). For Joyce, the story led to the tabloids discovering other sensationalistic aspects of her life which she probably would have preferred to have kept secret, and it seems as if she's lived her life stuck in the time when she was in love with Anderson, never moving on. Morris doesn't treat the story as tragedy, though, taking a lighter, more informal approach to it. I'm not sure whether this approach ultimately does the story justice, but Morris tells it in such a masterful way that you almost don't even think about it.

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