SXSW 2011 Review: TABLOID
Editor's note: This review was originally published as a SXSW Film Festival review on March 20, 2011.
Director: Errol Morris
In 1977, former Miss Wyoming World Joyce McKinney travelled to England where the man with whom she was in love, Kirk Anderson, was engaged in Mormon missionary work. The pair ended up in a small cottage, Kirk chained to a bed, and having sex. Depending on who you ask, the trip was either consensual or a kidnapping. In Errol Morris' (GATES OF HEAVEN, THE THIN BLUE LINE) new film, the life of Joyce McKinney and the "Mormon sex in chains case" is explored and used as a jumping ground to make a powerful statement about our tabloid obsessed culture.
Joyce McKinney appears in TABLOID to recount her own story. The way she tells it, she went to England to save Kirk, who she says was being brainwashed by the Mormon church. The details she provides indicate that Kirk went with her to the cottage by his own volition but was later made to recant his story when church leaders were able to talk to him once again. The plot thickens when, after being arrested, McKinney and her alleged co-conspirtor Keith May, fled the country in comical disguises. Through additional interviews with McKinney and her cohorts, the enigma of Joyce McKinney becomes increasingly complex, with her kidnapping story being only the very beginning. In typical Morris fashion, the filmmaker has gathered a comprehensive set of photographs and videos to punctuate interviews that he once again manages to make leaps and bounds better than talking head footage in almost any other documentary.
TABLOID is a deceptively simple film. While the kidnapping case alone has enough juicy material to fill a film, Morris struck gold with Joyce McKinney as a character, a woman who appears to be slightly unhinged, but filled with noble intentions. Without access to her on camera, the film absolutely would not work. Her interviews constantly earn big laughs, her drawl and Southern charms and idioms proving to be their own punchlines. While the film is, in fact, very funny there's a cautionary tale under the surface and things are not all fun and games for McKinney.
After years of tabloid headlines, McKinney eventually faded out of the main spotlight, a footnote in bizarre crime lore. Years later she resurfaced in a completely unexpected (but much more legal) way. This brought her back into the public consciousness even though she tried to conceal her identity. When speaking about the resurgence in interest in her, it becomes evident that even this larger-than-life character has a limit when it comes to attention. Gawkers and tabloid photographers continue to invade her privacy and turn what she firmly believes to be a story of her love for a man in need of help into a lurid scandal.
Errol Morris is one the best documentarians working today. Some have called TABLOID things such as "minor Morris," but this is unfair to the film. It is a simple movie on paper, very few words are required to explain the issue at the film's core. However, it has a powerful effect. There are some questions left unanswered and one's immediate reaction would be to continue research afterward. There is a fairly obvious indictment in the film, though, of a culture of people who enjoy seeing others' lives on display, regardless of the veracity of the headlines in the tabloids about those lives. Yes, Joyce is putting herself on record in TABLOID. Should that then be an open invitation to pry deeper into her life later? It is a question Morris is not going to answer, he has simply gathered the pieces of the story together for us to enjoy and perhaps left us with a bit of something to think about. His command of the documentary format on display in TABLOID is anything but minor.