Antonio Campos’ Christine, a dramatization of the events that led a young TV news anchor from Sarasota, Florida to commit suicide during a live broadcast in 1974, may turn out to be the bleakest film of the year. Despite the fact that Rebecca Hall gives one of the best performances of her career, or the fact that Campos handles the subject of depression and mental illness with a level of rawness and compassion that we don’t often see in mainstream films, watching someone struggle to keep their life from falling apart while their sanity steadily unravels is neither easy, nor pleasant.
Christine Chubbuck (Hall) envisions herself to be the sort of hard-hitting journalist whose investigate skills can affect real change in the community, but news editor Michael (Tracy Letts) couldn’t be less interested in stories about local zoning laws. The station is getting creamed in the ratings, and the solution is simple: “if it bleeds, it leads,” a philosophy that should sound familiar to fans of 2014’s superb thriller Nightcrawler. This isn’t an approach that speaks to Chubbuck’s sensibilities, as it creates an almost direct clash with her sense of integrity, but with rumors circulating that the station owner may soon be pulling the plug and transferring a handful of talent to another market, she’s willing to play by the new rulebook.
Further complicating Chubbuck’s life is a rocky relationship with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), whose frequent romantic trysts and thinly veiled criticisms plague her with an almost constant sense of inadequacy, and a crush on fellow news anchor George (Michael C. Hall), a well-groomed former athlete with a million-dollar smile and a fondness for Chubbuck borne from a surprisingly compassionate place. It’s clear to the audience that both characters care for our heroine, but Chubbuck either doesn’t notice the olive branches being extended in her direction, or perhaps isn’t capable of of recognizing them for what they truly are.
Hall’s portrayal of the lonely young woman is heartbreaking and tragic, particularly when we stop to consider how little progress has been made in the way that our society thinks about mental illness. Chubbuck clearly understands that she needs help, but that would require admitting that something is wrong – and for an ambitious woman trying to claw her way up the ladder of a male-dominated industry, showing the slightest hint of weakness is a luxury she cannot afford. It’s this mentality that leads to her ultimate fate – the recreation of which feels a bit exploitative here – and the knowledge that it didn’t have to end this way makes it all the more agonizing.