Everyone knows how Christine Chubbuck’s story ends; why it ended that way is another question altogether, and one even a film as astute and exquisitely considered as Antonio Campos’ “Christine” can’t hope to answer in full. Instead, it’s a real-life drama of jangling variables and charged blank spaces, teasing out the tangled personal yearnings and failings that somehow led a smart, attractive, 29-year-old news reporter to blow her brains out on live television in 1974. Far from the austere death march it might threaten to be on paper, this is a thrumming, heartsore, sometimes viciously funny character study, sensitive both to the singularities of Chubbuck’s psychological collapse and the indignities weathered by any woman in a 1970s newsroom. Invigorated by a top-drawer ensemble, with Rebecca Hall discomfitingly electric in the best role she’s yet been offered, this should easily become Campos’ most widely distributed work to date.
Not, admittedly, that the director’s previous features have set the highest bar for commercial potential: Only relative to the brilliant but blood-freezing formalism of “Simon Killer” and “Afterschool” can a film as nervy and needling as “Christine” be described as a step into the mainstream. Still, it’s fair to say that Campos has curbed his more avant-garde impulses for this project, realizing Craig Shilowich’s intelligent script with methodical restraint and observational patience — recognizing, perhaps, that the mere facts of Chubbuck’s tragedy are strange enough on their own, without need for stylistic complication. Campos’ perspective remains a distinctive one: D.p. Joe Anderson’s ruthlessly controlled camera still scrutinizes characters with clear-eyed concentration, while secondary corners of the frame often yield vital environmental and psychological detailing. Though the unblinking intensity of its gaze at Hall’s Chubbuck may be taken for coldness in some quarters, this is biopic filmmaking that feels a strong duty of care to its subject.
“You’re not always the most approachable person,” Chubbuck is told by co-worker George Ryan (Michael C. Hall), the well-oiled chief news anchor at the Sarasota TV network that employs them both. He may have approachability greased into his resume, but he’s not wrong: As presented by the filmmakers and their lead actress, Chubbuck’s undoing is her chronic inability (or flat refusal) to recognize a hand of friendship when one is offered. Hall’s performance often finds her internally reading and reflecting others, trying to locate — sometimes with visible panic — the version of herself that would be most impressive in the required context. “Christine” is least comfortable and most moving when the image she projects falls short of the one she intends: Her network-news presence, critically, is too severe for her planned shot at the televisual big time. (Meanwhile, she’s either unaware or in denial of the patriarchal systems in place that make “the little blonde number in Sports” a safer bet than her for promotion.)
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As Chubbuck’s mind streaks ahead with alternative possibilities for herself, however, life itself stubbornly refuses to keep pace. An unattached virgin living with her mother (the superb J. Smith-Cameron) following an unexplained period of getting “all turned around” in Boston, she pines romantically for George, only to clam up, arms folded, at the first overtures of flirtation. Charged with the regular community-interest slot in the evening news bulletin, she’s not socially adroit enough to craft stories of appropriate popular appeal; the more she tries to meet brusque demands for “juicier” material from her dismissive boss Michael (Tracy Letts), the more opaque her pitches get. In 1976, Paddy Chayefsky penned “Network” as a satirical spin on the Chubbuck story; in “Christine,” the title character’s suicide is her ironically complicit rejoinder to the trash-media culture that has since flourished across new media forms. (“News, not irony,” Michael instructs her: She responds with an extreme brand of nightcrawling that might make Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom balk.)
Campos employs dazzling aural manipulation to convey Chubbuck’s gradual sinking into her own psyche: Coll Anderson’s dense sound design swarms and recedes with her moods, as do the metronomic rhythms of Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ score. An exactingly selected soundtrack of 1970s radio staples, meanwhile, alternates between diegetic and loudly non-diegetic applications; sentimental song lyrics appear to fill her head as approximations of regular human feeling. “Christine” makes a subtextual virtue throughout of its gaudy period detail: Scott Kuzio’s dust-speckled production design and Emma Potter’s spot-on costumes follow the orange-and-oatmeal style mandate of the era, while the blacks and greens of Chubbock’s deeper-hued wardrobe jar with the surrounding palette as the mood takes her.
Films this exhaustively constructed don’t always factor their actors into the design, but here’s a gratifying exception. Though it might appear to be a one-woman showcase, “Christine” is also a delicately balanced and apportioned ensemble piece — as perceptive in its way as Tom McCarthy’s far less fractious “Spotlight” in studying the human machinery that marks and makes news. Letts steams with exasperation without succumbing to cartoonish dinosaur fury. Maria Dizzia, unexpectedly handed a crucial emotive stretch of the film, does invaluable work from the sidelines as Chubbuck’s notional protegee, sympathetic to her superior’s disintegration while keeping a tactical distance. And Michael C. Hall is typically excellent as an alpha-male-in-training who manipulates affections more brutally than he means to: A soused, insecure monologue in which he unpacks a recurring nightmare about shoelaces is among the film’s most inspired moments of conjoined scripting and performance.
Still, “Christine” is likeliest to be remembered as the film that finally made good on Rebecca Hall’s flinty, often under-challenged gifts. By turns shrilly frightening and blearily sucker-punched, her performance bears improbable comparison with Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning “Black Swan” turn as a study of self-disarrangement from the inside out, similarly motivated by myopic professional pressure. In characterizing a woman most viewers know for one act only, Hall lends specificity even to Chubbuck’s untreated hollows and voids; she’s made human enough that, as the film marches to its unavoidably wrenching conclusion, we irrationally hope — if only for a split-second — that she might not pull the trigger.