CHRISTINE: A Compelling But Tragic Character Study

In July of 1974, television reporter Christine Chubbuck committed suicide on a live news broadcast. This is not a spoiler for Christine, as the film concentrates on the tragic events that led to its title character’s fall.

Through masterful filming techniques and an amazing performance from Rebecca Hall, we get a glimpse into the tragic fall of a troubled woman.

Christine’s World

It is the summer of 1974, as Christine Chubbuck doggedly reports on the positive “people stories” of her sleepy Florida community. Her drive to be the best possible reporter is admirable, yet she has her limits. While station manager Mike (Tracy Letts) encourages the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality, Christine resists, insisting that they are better than appealing to the lowest common denominator.

Health issues, an unrequited crush on lead anchor George Ryan (Michael C. Hall), and a stalling career lead Christine to come around to Mike’s thinking. She focuses on getting a coveted promotion to Baltimore, but her attempts become more and more desperate. With every setback, Christine’s world slowly fractures.

Rebecca Hall gives one of her best performances as Christine, a woman whose passion for people is in stark contrast to her inability to truly connect with others. Hall expresses this through some great monologues, but equally as impressive are her use of subtle facial expressions and posture to show just how uncomfortable Christine is in her own skin. Those expressions can get a little too obvious towards the end of the film, but that may be due to how familiar we have become with them.

CHRISTINE: A Compelling But Tragic Character Study
source: The Orchard

From the very first scenes of Christine, director Antonio Campos and cinematographer Joe Anderson use long takes and closeups of Christine’s face, in order to spread her obvious discomfort to the audience. We are in Christine’s world; we see every tic, grimace and uncomfortable smile with every setback she suffers.

The filmmakers refuse to let us look away. At one point, Christine awkwardly approaches a couple celebrating an anniversary. The whole exchange makes you squirm in your seat because of her stilted nature, but the camera stays squarely on her the whole time. Christine cannot escape the situation, so neither can we.

Later, at a Fourth of July party, we follow her in a long tracking shot as she looks for familiar faces. There is a pained look on her face for most of the sequence. The camera rarely leaves her, only cutting to the other characters when Christine looks to them.

Finally, Christine gets one on one time with a drunken George. In this scene, George confesses a connection to her, a common sense of isolation. During this exchange, he is centered, but out of focus. Christine is in focus at the corner of the frame, avoiding eye contact and obviously uncomfortable.

CHRISTINE: A Compelling But Tragic Character Study
source: The Orchard

This should be George’s “big moment” and an expression of something that Christine has always wanted, but it is hard for the latter to accept it. George is incidental, and the real focus is Christine’s face looking for escape from a real human interaction. The scene only ends when she leaves, and the camera follows her out.

An Imperfect Cast

The rest of the cast is very good, but we learn very little about them. They are mostly given one-note traits: George is the charmer, Jean (Maria Dizzia) is the friendly woman who sings and eats ice cream whenever she feels bad, and Mike is the gruff station manager with an alcoholic wife. This could have been a weakness to the film, but I believe it is a conscious decision by the filmmakers.

Christine could never really connect with these people, so why should the audience? We only see the most superficial traits of them, because that is all she sees as well. Any interactions with them are simply business, with Jean and Mike the only ones who have any worthwhile connections to her.

Christine’s humanity manages to shine through with her relationships with Jean and Mike. Jean does her best to establish a deeper friendship with her, but is always refused. Throughout the film, Christine treats her with an air of superiority. That same trait plays a large part in her relationship with Mike.

CHRISTINE: A Compelling But Tragic Character Study
source: The Orchard

Their relationship is always adversarial. Mike shares most of the blame for this, a sexist man who can get unnecessarily harsh, but Christine is not completely innocent. Her stubbornness and superiority play a large part in their problems, and she suggests that reporters should know better than the typical audience.

Christine’s life is very much a tragedy, but the film never holds back in showing her as a full person, including her flaws. This makes her even more tragic because she actually has more in common with the others than she realizes. Much of her inability to connect is simply a refusal to do so.

Her real life depression is somewhat glossed over in the film, referred to as “one of her moods” by her mother Peg (J. Smith Cameron). This decision is a double-edge sword. On the one hand, it reflects the times, since the world of the 1970s did not look at depression like it does now. Not only is Christine’s depression seen as a mood, she is constantly told to “get over it” or “move past it.” The film glosses over it because the times did.

On the other hand, the film leaves out an important aspect of Christine’s life. At the very least, it is a bit of a plot hole. At the worst, some viewers might even be offended by how little time is spent fleshing it out.

Blood and Guts

Christine handles the actual suicide very well. It is not sensationalized or overly stylized. The shocking incident simply hits you in the gut, and then concentrates on the media’s reaction to the moment. It is a subtle dig at the media and its obsession with “blood and guts” both then and now.

Yet, the way it is handled fits in perfectly with the overall film. That dig is done so well and then it goes. This film is really about the tragic story of a woman who never quite fit into her world. Christine never forgets its focus and lets the story speak for itself, even if it leaves some important details out.

Do you believe that Christine should flesh out its subject more? Or did it succeed in portraying its tragic story?

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