Antonio Campos’ previous films, Afterschool and Simon Killer, have shown that he’s a director uninterested in his audiences’ comfort. Yet, despite the various qualities of both of those features, there’s nothing in them to quite prepare for how desperately, wrenchingly sad his latest, Christine, is. Taking on the tragic life story of newscaster Christine Chubbuck, who committed suicide live on air in 1974, Campos and writer Craig Shilowich present us with an empathetic but also brutally unsparing look at loneliness and depression. It’s an immense achievement from not only the writing/directing partnership but also from star Rebecca Hall, who turns in a career-best performance as Chubbuck.
Covering the last few weeks of Chubbuck’s life, Christine opens up a deep pit of despair in your stomach from the very first scene, as Christine records herself pretending to interview the recently-impeached President Nixon, and only gets more oppressively bleak from there. It’s a huge testament to everyone involved that this consistently stomach-churning tone never loses its power or becomes overly exhausting, instead building and releasing in waves all the way up to the near-unwatchable denouement. With each moment of sadness, from Christine interrupting some strangers’ anniversary dinner to ask them about their love to her morning scripting of how she wants the days’ conversations to go, we feel deeply for her, but we’re also kept at an arms’ length.
It’s this distance that provides Christine with so much of its power. Though Chubbuck’s loneliness may not have initially been entirely self-imposed, she’s reached a point where it is certainly self-exacerbated. Unable to comprehend that people may want to help her (even though all she wants is contact and affection), she swats away all helping hands. Whether it’s a kind offer of companionship from fellow reporter Jean (Maria Dizzia) or weatherman Steve (Tim Simons), or the somewhat more imperceptible advances of lead anchor George (Michael C Hall), Chubbuck always has ‘too much work’ or ‘an unchangeable schedule’.
This frustration at Chubbuck’s refusal to even try and pull out of her hideous spiral lends itself to one of the most nuanced explorations of mental health you’re likely to see on screen. Campos and Shilowich never judge or diagnose their subject, and they extend their central sympathy to all the cast members to look at profoundly distressing effect one person’s mental health struggles can have on the people surrounding them. It’s this obvious care – care that can’t be hidden by the film’s horror-movie score and muted colour palette – that stops this story from feeling exploitative, even with Chubbuck’s suicide shown utterly unflinchingly in one of 2016’s most powerful scenes.
Not only does Christine earn this moment with its intensely brilliant build-up, but it dedicates enough time to the aftermath to ensure you don’t leave the cinema on the bleakest note possible. Those left behind are devastated, but you see glimmers of hope and light in the way they begin to cope. It’s a vital epilogue, and yet also manages to subtly reframe Chubbuck’s struggle as something possibly even more chilling than we had initially thought; thanks to this ending, you’ll be grappling with the film long after it’s ended.
For a film like this you need an absolutely top-drawer lead, and Rebecca Hall is mesmerising. Though Christine is too small and inaccessible a movie for it to gain the real awards traction it deserves, Hall’s performance stands among the very best of the year, regardless of category. The physicality of alienation and despair is hard to pin down, and even harder to effectively present to an audience, but Hall manages it with aplomb. Chubbuck’s instincts for career advancement and social interactions are often all wrong, and the exhaustion and confusion this causes are put forward painfully well by Hall.
In the final third, it seems that a great weight is lifted from Chubbuck, and Hall’s performance adjusts accordingly. She’s suddenly less frayed, more confident in every word and mannerism. Yet, where this should be a positive change, knowing the story going in means that we realise the root cause of this newfound quasi-happiness, that Chubbuck’s decision to take her own life has been firmly made. It’s heartbreaking and yet almost a relief to reach this conclusion – until we come to the moment itself, which made me tense up to the point of feeling physically ill.
Christine is a film that looks at the worrying trend of ever-more violent news, but it wisely doesn’t take so judgmental a tone that its own display of shocking bloodshed feels hypocritical. In fact, it’s in Jean, the most likable character, that we find the most competent grisly crime reporter, and it’s her ability to separate herself from her work when it starts to overwhelm her that makes her such a stark counterpoint to Chubbuck’s obsessiveness. And perhaps this is where the ultimate tragedy of Christine lies. Station boss Michael (Tracy Letts) tells us in no uncertain terms that Chubbuck is the smartest member of the team. She’s also driven and idealistic, with potential to become a truly great reporter in the decades to come, and yet this possible life was snuffed out by her being so cripplingly alone, a terrifying fate that Christine illustrates with uncompromising skill.