“Christine” is powerful stuff, no doubt about it, made all the more powerful by the way it slowly builds to its grim conclusion.
This is a picture of mental illness in hiding, presenting in ways subtle and jarring, coming forward then pulling back. It’s also something of a tour de force for star Rebecca Hall who, in keeping with the film’s approach, does so much while seeming to do so little.
Hall plays Christine Chubbuck, a real-life TV field reporter at a small-market Florida station in the mid-’70s. The story’s well-known, so let’s cut to the chase: Chubbuck committed suicide while on-air, shooting herself in the head in a TV first.
But the movie isn’t as much concerned with that gruesome act as it is with the quiet tension and series of disappointments that led to it. When we first meet Christine, she’s obviously driven and dismissive of others; she’s always the smartest person in the room, and she and everyone else knows it.
Christine wants to do important, but somewhat dull stories — a zoning board ruling that will affect local health care, for instance. Unfortunately, her station manager, Michael (Tracy Letts), has just given in to the then-new, now-standard TV news ethos of “If it bleeds, it leads.” The problem with that? Very little bleeds in their comparatively crime-free community.
Slowly we get to see Christine’s life. She lives with her hippie-ish mother (J. Smith-Cameron), who initially seems a bit ditzy. She perhaps secretly pines for Handsome George (Michael C. Hall), the station’s anchorman. She volunteers at a home for disabled children. She seems fine.
At first. But then cracks start to show. And a haunted past is hinted at. And every time Christine wants life to go right, it goes left. Nothing major happens to her, really, but the minor indignities add up.
It’s a slow stunner of a story, of a mind disintegrating in plain sight. “Christine” doesn’t offer a lot of laughs, but it has much to say about fragile lives and desperation. And the impact of Hall’s beautifully calibrated performance lingers long after the trigger is pulled.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
Rated R for a scene of disturbing violence and for language including some sexual reference
Running time: 115 minutes