In the hands of anyone other than Errol Morris, Tabloid would be hard to believe. The subjects are too bizarre and the details are too lurid. Mormon sex, animal cloning, and stunning delusions of grandeur are defiantly on display. But because this is Morris – a peerless documentary filmmaker who seems uncover to fascinating subjects with unflappable ease – it easy to assume his latest is the real deal. Flashy graphics and Morris’ unique interview style help Tabloid transcend its racy subject matter. By the time the end credits roll, it had raised bigger questions about credibility, obsession, and our insatiable appetite for sleazy news.
Former beauty queen Joyce McKinney is an intelligent woman who sometimes speaks with unsettling intensity. In the late seventies, she fell in love with Kirk Anderson, a Mormon missionary. To her chagrin, Kirk leaves America for a mission in England. Joyce claims they were engaged before Kirk left, so she hires bodyguards and pilot before flying across the pond in search of him. When Joyce finds Kirk, she discovers he’s been hypnotized by the church, so she takes it upon herself to deprogram him through a long weekend of food and passionate sex. That’s her version, at least. According to the police and British tabloids, Joyce is a deviant, gun-wielding kidnapper. Stuck in women’s prison, Joyce struggles to tell her side of the story, going so far as to smuggle letters inside various body orifices. And it only gets weirder from there.
The Interrotron, Morris’ method of getting his interviews to stare directly into the camera, helps Tabloid maintain its confessional tone. Joyce’s affection for Kirk seems real, at least until Morris interviews two British journalists. One is from The Mirror, the other from The Express, and they’re both unseemly creeps who rationalize their repugnant attempts to milk the story further. One of the journalists is proud he discovered hundreds of nude Joyce photographs, as if her body puts him on the same level as the Watergate break-in. But as with Gates of Heaven and even The Fog of War, Morris creates enough distance from his subject so that he, and us as well, are never quite sure what to make of these people. Are the journalists easily dislikable? Yes, but they’re sating a tabloid-crazy populace. Is Joyce delusional? Possibly, yet her resolve seems honest. Kirk is the only missing puzzle piece, but to no one’s surprise, he declined an interview.
The intersection of wholesomeness and sleaze are what make Tabloid so compulsively watchable. Already brimming with incident, the only way to improve upon a hypnotized sex fiend is to make him a Mormon. By the time Joyce turns to dog-cloning, I was in awe of how Morris, once again, reminds us how seemingly ordinary people can be fascinating through passionate self-delusion. His use of archival footage and graphic design only heighten the mood – they function like Freudian sensationalism – so even if Morris predominantly relies on interviews, his film remains a visual delight. On the heels of a stunning phone-hacking scandal, Tabloid couldn’t arrive at a more opportune time. As the media discusses its ethics and where it shouldn’t cross the line, Morris reminds us how the pursuit of truth will never get in the way of a good story.