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Christine: Her Final Sign-Off

This indie drama about the life and death of newscaster Christine Chubbuck succeeds because of the answers it doesn’t provide.

Jonny Cournoyer

Sadness pervades Christine in two ways: On one level, the biopic tells the story of Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old TV reporter in Sarasota, Florida who shot herself on live television in the summer of 1974. But on another, the film is an open acknowledgment that no movie could possibly offer a clear answer to what would drive someone to suicide in front of a public audience. As played by Rebecca Hall with startling control and ambiguity, Chubbuck is a complicated, but by no means doomed, young woman, a fact which only makes Christine all the more riveting and despairing. We don’t get closer to an explanation for her death as the film moves along, but our compassion grows with each scene.

Christine is directed by Antonio Campos, whose last movie, Simon Killer, was an edgy look at an unstable American tearing his way through Paris. This film is equally absorbed by its prickly protagonist, but there’s a noticeable uptick in warmth this time around. While the overall mood may be chilly and a touch remote, it’s a world that seems designed as a tribute to Chubbuck’s temperament, an environment—both internal and external—that may have contributed to her isolation and despair.

With her long black hair and a cautious, rarely-seen smile, Christine Chubbuck works at a low-rent news station doing local-interest pieces she knows she’s too smart for. Ambitious and aggressive, she wants to break into a larger market, an opportunity that seems possible after her cranky station manager (an excellent and withering Tracy Letts) announces the owner is looking to poach two reporters for his Baltimore station—she hopes she’ll be chosen alongside George (Michael C. Hall), the station’s handsome, charming anchor.

Anyone seeing Christine will presumably know its ending before walking into the theater. (The film is one of two recent considerations of Chubbuck’s life and death alongside Robert Greene’s pseudo-documentary Kate Plays Christine.) A viewer might enter into the experience both curious and nervous, wanting to know why she killed herself but also scared of facing the inevitable moment of her death. Greene’s intelligent, probing film is, among other things, an inquiry into why such horrific true-life tales fascinates us, but Christine, to its eternal credit, eschews queasy, car-crash enthrallment for a heartfelt elegy to depression itself. Campos doesn’t want to solve the mystery of Chubbuck’s suicide—rather, he despairs that it happened at all.

Strangely enough, Christine also has the makings of a workplace comedy. Campos and writer Craig Shilowich take time establishing the Sarasota newsroom and its cast of discontent characters, including the dopey weatherman (Veep’s Timothy Simons) and a camerawoman (a superb Maria Dizzia), Chubbuck’s one close friend at the station. We get a sense of how television news is changing in the mid 1970s—video is replacing film and the “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality is taking hold—but those are ultimately details, not clues, in Christine’s rich, lived-in mosaic. The only anomaly is Chubbuck’s final act.

In her best film work, Hall plays bright but distant individuals, women who don’t know why they can’t find happiness. Christine is a perfect platform for her talents: She amplifies those qualities as Chubbuck, giving us a character who, on an almost molecular level, is simply different than everyone around her, including her worrying mother (J. Smith-Cameron), who also happens to be her roommate.

But Hall’s Chubbuck is no quirky oddball or mannered, actor’s exercise. What’s particularly lovely about the performance is how much Chubbuck struggles to fit in while knowing deep down that she’s a bit unusual: She has a weird sense of humor, she’s terrible at small talk, even her gait is a tad awkward. We learn about the physical problems plaguing Chubbuck—a stomach ailment portends something far direr—and there are vague references to a meltdown that she had at a station in Boston. But as with Christine itself, Hall doesn’t arrive at a single reason for Chubbuck’s suicide—she seems so stubbornly alive that it’s hard to imagine she longs for death.

I’ve seen this film twice now, and both times I’ve been struck by a sense that, as the finale approached, I still wasn’t quite prepared for it. Others might consider the film’s inability to develop the factors that drove Chubbuck to take her life as a failing, but I consider it one of the film’s great strengths. When someone chooses an end so intimate and violent for herself, those closest will often think back to certain moments that explain why it happened. But even that picture is inadequate—there are always reasons none of us will ever know. In this way, Christine is enormously gracious by admitting that all of us have our fears and struggles, and that we can’t possibly understand anyone else’s, not completely.

One of the film’s finest moments occurs when Chubbuck and George go out to dinner and afterward he takes her to a self-help group that he swears by. Her hopes for this pseudo-date aren’t going the way she planned, Chubbuck is confronted by the group’s “Yes, but…” exercises, which apparently are doing wonders for George but leave her feeling even lonelier than before. Campos doesn’t treat the scene like a joke: We’re all looking for ways to feel better about ourselves, and it’s a shame Chubbuck never found one that could save her. Ultimately, this is Christine’s sad lesson. We don’t watch the movie to gawk at a one person’s suicide; we watch because we know she’s not the only character afflicted by anxieties and disappointments. Maybe we know these people in our own lives. And maybe, if we’re honest, we see them in ourselves, too.

Grade: A-

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site