Kinky sex, religion, a beauty queen, Mormon missionaries kidnapped at gunpoint – as a former writer for Daily Express points out in Errol Morris’ sensational “Tabloid,” there is something in the Joyce McKinney story for everyone. OK, except maybe the Mormons. And Joyce McKinney. They both seem pretty pissed off about this movie.
But for those of us on the outside looking in, “Tabloid” offers a brisk, gripping reminder that the great stories never die. Stay with me, I know that’s a broad claim, considering that usually we use that particular maxim when referring to, say, Shakespeare, the Odyssey, Star Wars, “Final Destination” movies…(wait a minute)
It might be strange to consider the “Case of the Manacled Mormon” amongst such treasured tales, especially since Joyce McKinney’s escapades were decidedly non-fictional (probably). If you don’t know the backstory here, in the mid-1970’s McKinney was a barely-out-of-teens beauty queen when she met and fell hopelessly in love with Kirk Anderson, a young Utah Mormon. Convinced they were going to get married and have a perfect life together, McKinney was confounded when, one day, Kirk simply disappeared. Hiring a team of private investigators, she found that he had been sent to do missionary duty in Britain. Along with fellow conspirator Keith May, Joyce abducted Kirk and absconded to a small cottage in Devon, where she proceeded to have sex with him for several days, in the hopes of reversing what she refers to as the Mormons’ “brainwashing.” Joyce claims that the efforts were mutual; however, a few days later, a freed and “cured” Kirk went straight to the police and filed charges of forced abduction and rape.
Look, this is not a story with the tragic force of “Hamlet” or the heroic arc of “Harry Potter.” But it remains as enthralling today as it was in the 70’s, for outstanding accomplishment in sheer eccentricity. Joyce herself makes repeated references to fairy tales – to her, the whole thing is a woefully misunderstood storybook romance, sullied by the non-believers in the media who turned the story into a trashy affair (never mind that Kirk, who refused to be interviewed for this film, is apparently amongst the heathens). It’s not a terrible comparison, but the more appropriate source would be the more macabre, bizarre narratives of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm, rather than the Disney-fied sweets that McKinney is schilling.
There are several points during “Tabloid” where the viewer thinks they’ve got everything figured out: Joyce McKinney is clearly a raving lunatic, and all the accusations hurled against her are entirely plausible. Then Morris interviews another former Mormon missionary regarding Kirk’s motivation, and the young man reminds us that had Kirk broken his vow of chastity, willingly or unwillingly, he would’ve lost his right to inherit a planet of his own in the afterlife. So suddenly, we have Joyce on one side, who we are pretty sure is crazy, and then the Mormons on the other, who we KNOW are crazy. The only person left that we could cross-examine is Kirk, who (probably intelligently) elected to stay out of “Tabloid” altogether, considering the legal ramifications alone of his testimony here would’ve been considerable (and this is Errol Morris, the documentarian who got a man off of death row because of “The Thin Blue Line,” that we’re talking about here).
So instead we get to hear from the third major party in this whole messy equation: the British tabloids. Unsurprisingly, this entire story was a gold mine for the rabble-rousing periodicals, and Joyce’s *ahem* photogenic qualities, combined with a penchant for wearing disguises to “avoid” attention, were icing on the cake. But the particulars of what happened in that cottage in Devon weren’t even enough to satisfy the Daily Mirror, which is how tabloid readers suddenly ended up with sensational photos proving that McKinney earned the money for that team of P.I.’s through several years of steady work as a prostitute and nude model specializing in S&M.
Recent events have shown us all too clearly the unscrupulous methods the British tabloids are prepared to employ. Did the Mirror exaggerate a brief stint as a call girl? Invent the photos altogether? That’s what McKinney claims. But if they did, where did Joyce get the funds for what must’ve been a fairly expensive operation?
It all sounds as if the major players are simply making up the story as they go along, and that may very well be Morris’ point. At first glance, Joyce McKinney seems a strange subject for a director who has overturned a murder charge (“The Thin Blue Line”), re-examined the political career of controversial Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (“The Fog of War”) and delved far further into the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal than anyone else dared (“Standard Operating Procedure”). But there is a clear thematic link in Morris’ work that rings out as true in “Tabloid” as in any of his other masterworks: above all, the inquisitive director is concerned with self-image and self-perception, how the most isolated, marginalized, or flat-out hated figures in our society see themselves. Like McNamara or the perpetrators of Abu Ghraib, McKinney constructs a narrative around herself to justify her actions; and while the behavior of those people seems odd, irrational, or even horrifying, don’t we all do the same thing?
McKinney has denounced “Tabloid” on numerous occasions for depicting her in a negative light, but I honestly don’t think it is Morris’ intention to be cruel. If I could only pick a single adjective to describe the documentarian, it would be “curious”- he believes that the more people talk, the more they reveal themselves, and boy, is he a great listener. Lesser filmmakers like Michael Moore and his ilk are far more impatient, clearly going into certain interviews with an idea of the response they want to get, and taking whatever measures necessary (interrupting, editing, etc.) to get it. Morris believes, and I agree, that it is far more interesting to let the subject present their side of the story, and then let the audience judge for themselves.
My ultimate judgment? Joyce McKinney is obsessed with the spotlight. The tabloids are just better at inventing stories than most of us. And Mormons are still out of their gourds.
Probably not playing in theaters anymore. Watch it when it comes out on DVD.
Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars