Movie Review: Errol Morris’ TABLOID: A Trip into Sideshow America, With Sin, Sex and Strange Stories

James examines the fun, strange and insightful twists of the new Errol Morris documentary.

There’s something immensely appealing in Errol Morris’ Tabloid, the latest from the acclaimed documentarian, and something immensely addictive. You keep worrying at it, going back to it, like the way you lazily push at a loose tooth with your tongue to feel it wobble, always on the verge of wrenching it loose in a rush of blood. It’s the story of Joyce McKinney, an ex-beauty queen who met Kirk Anderson, the love of her life, and wanted to be with him; when Kirk left her in 1978, whisked away to do missionary work by the Mormon church he belonged to—and she did not—she followed him. With love in her heart, some eavesdropping equipment, chloroform, a private pilot, a bodyguard and a fake gun. It’s a true story, Joyce assures us. “A love story, not a porno story like the papers would have you believe,” she explains in interview footage at the time. And why should she lie?

Joan Didion, in the opening line of her famed essay “The White Album,” notes how “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” The more time you spend with Joyce—Morris’ camera, as ever, facing her straight on, her tale well-practiced by decades of the telling—you realize that perhaps Joyce lives so she can tell herself stories. Joyce explains how “When I met Kirk, it was like something out of a movie. ...” When Joyce later rescued—or abducted—Kirk, she took him to an isolated place “like something out of a Franco Zeferelli movie, Brother Sun and Sister Moon ... ” So, Tabloid asks, is Joyce’s story like something out of the movies because it’s so strange .. or is her story so strange so it could be like something out of the movies?

That’s just the one layer of Tabloid, which also includes dissertations on the eat-or-be-eaten news ethos of the British tabloids in the ‘70s, as well as digressions into the more baroque and rococo side-notes of Mormon theology (complete with found-footage clips of animated Mormon Bible tales intended for kids, clearly from the ‘70s and creepy as all get out). Morris has been toiling in stonier fields than this recently—Standard Operating Procedure was about what America did to prisoners under Bush, while The Fog of War, which won Morris an Oscar for Best Documentary, featured Vietnam War-era Secretary of Defense almost, almost, humanized enough be understood and absolved for what he’d done. But Morris’s work has always had a playful sense of humor—and even his harsher films, like Mr. Death, about a Holocaust denier, or The Thin Blue Line, about a wrongful murder arrest and conviction Morris’ film helped reverse, have a perverse playfulness to them, finding bright moments of absurdity and human frailty in the midst of evil and ignorance.

And through it all, stories swirl—not just Joyce’s version of events (Kirk, notably, refused to be interviewed) but news reporting and commentary and lies (which are also stories) and myths and legends and fairytales and religious scriptures and police reports. What we see shifts, too—present-day interviews, past TV footage, movie clips, modern moments from the 24-hour newscycle—and yet the shifting viewpoint never becomes disorienting, or disoriented. Morris shoots his documentary interviews these days with a device of his own making, the Interrotron, which makes his subjects feel like they’re looking at his face, and not the camera, thanks to a series of ingenious mirrors. It’s queasily intimate, but fascinating; these aren’t subjects being interrogated but, rather, people talking to a person —and Morris’s questions pop up when we want them to and fade away when the narrative flows downhill of its own accord.

McKinney is feisty and funny and flakey, and her pronouncements have an air of destiny to them, like when she explains her plot to seduce Kirk out of the Mormon church by making love to him and rendering him an outcast: “If it took giving up in my virginity in a romantic moonlit cottage, so be it; I just wanted him out of that cult.” There’s a hint here of what Greil Marcus called “The old, weird America” —frontier pluck (in Joyce’s case) vs. one of the ideas that could have only sprouted from America’s soil—but it isn’t a history lesson, or a dry dissertation. When Joyce says of Kirk’s later denials and disavowals “you can tell a lie long enough you start to believe it,” it’d be funny if it wasn’t so strangely scary and sad.

Even now, Joyce is still finding ways to be in the spotlight—to say more would be a shame—and her tone can flicker between lightly peeved and raving paranoia at a moment’s notice. William Carlos Williams, in 1923’s ‘For Elsie,’ wrote “The pure products of America/ Go crazy,” and Tabloid captures that contrast, that promise, that curse, as Joyce tries to explain the inexplicable and battered, bitter newspaper men shrug and write her off as crazy—and perhaps she is, but does that necessarily mean she’s wrong? Or does that necessarily mean she’s right? Truth is, as we know, stranger than fiction— but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more exciting, more compelling, more gripping. In Morris’ hands, though, truth is its own kind of fiction, and full of suspense and strangeness, possibility and potential; Tabloid is a fun ride, to be sure, but the places it goes will surprise you.