A film about the on-air suicide of a Sarasota, Florida, news reporter who died in 1974, “Christine” is a quiet whirlwind of weird incidents.
One of the most difficult to watch, but also typical, arrives late in the movie, when Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) shows up at night at the home of her station’s owner, Bob Anderson (John Cullum), who’s drinking in his bathrobe and watching TV.
Chubbuck is angling for a promotion to Bob’s new station in a bigger market, and she couldn’t have found a less sympathetic ear. He doesn’t even recognize her.
The moment, perhaps subtly, perhaps just accidentally — it’s often difficult to tell in “Christine” — does more than offer another piece of evidence that Chubbuck is a little different. It offhandedly sums up the appeal of her profession, the local news, which endures despite its frequent banality and growing obsolescence.
Gesturing over to the little TV on the kitchen counter, Bob admits: “I don’t really watch it. I just keep it on for company.”
It’s an odd thing for a news station owner to say to one of the station’s field reporters, especially when she’s pretended to have a flat tire right outside his house just to inveigle him. Her bold act is typical of her portrayal here. She’s intrepid, as a reporter should be, but also at times shockingly forward, as when she approaches a couple at dinner to inquire if they’re in love and if they’d like to appear in a community news piece. Following this awkward overture, she proceeds to lecture them about values. It’s cringe-worthy.
But Chubbuck also is anxiety-ridden, thoroughly uncomfortable in her own skin, a condition we’re given to believe could be symptomatic of potentially more serious problems. As the film progresses her mood intensifies and her behavior becomes more erratic.
Partially her angst is a response to her boss’ (Tracy Letts) insistence in spicing up the station’s news coverage. He shows his team a video, aired in another news market, of a man being shot in the head by some type of gun on camera. It appalls them. The news value is questionable but the sensationalism is obvious. And the message is clear. With ratings falling, they need such stuff to get more viewers. The not-so-sage news chief actually utters the phrase, “If it bleeds it leads.”
So we know for sure that “Christine” is about more than one person’s ill-fated night on local television. The question the film keeps rubbing up against is how much more, how much deeper.
Chubbuck, who specializes in covering such anodyne local events as the annual strawberry festival, is outraged. But it’s not always clear whether her instability is correlated or merely irritated by her job situation. She’s also dealing with health problems that would upset anyone, and a difficulty with interpersonal relationships. She might easily be diagnosed today as suffering from social anxiety or even bipolar disorder.
Although you can’t take your eyes off Hall’s performance, the film’s intention is difficult to discern. Chubbuck isn’t necessarily a product of her profession, but it’s certainly not good for her. What’s the point of investigating her sad fate within it?
“Christine” has an eye for detail, which underscores the absurdity of local news coverage, especially in its nascent form. Chubbuck takes herself and her career very seriously.
Despite loneliness and an inability to connect with others outside work, Chubbuck is a good person. Why she kills herself is anyone’s guess, even though the film gives us plenty of clues. But still, why show it? The reason, the point of recreating these events, is at least hinted at, especially during a long take of Chubbuck’s colleague (Maria Dizzia) eating ice cream, with the TV on, shortly after witnessing the gruesome event.
The problem for the victim of suicide, the moment seems to say, is that everyone else moves on, very quickly. Even if you kill yourself in public and make it news, there’s no value. “Christine” concentrates on the life behind a famous death, and in so doing may be trying to convey to its audience that the former was far more important than the latter, even if it wasn’t as sensational and sad. (R) 123 min. S