Sunday, January 12, 2020

Rebecca Hall Unnerves and Impresses in Christine

How do you deal with tragedy? We all have our coping mechanisms. For example, one of the supporting characters of Christine, Jean Reed (Maria Dizzia), mentions that she likes to eat some ice cream and sing out loud whenever the world is becoming too harsh. We all need go-to outlets like that to turn to in order to fleetingly escape from the horrors of the world. Tragedy is a pervasive part of the world, so too should coping mechanisms to deal with that tragedy. Christine deals with the true story of Christine Chubbuck, a news anchor working for a Sarasota, Florida TV station in 1974 who has had heavy experience with adversity in her own life.

Right now, many of her challenges come from her desire to increase her prominence at her job. Right now, she's hosting a human interest show that has some level of local popularity but she feels she can go bigger. Her attempts to go bigger tend to go nowhere fast thanks to a boss, Michael Nelson (Tracy Letts), that just wants Christine to do flashy grisly news stories. However, Christine could have a chance to go somewhere when it's revealed that the owner of her station is preparing to transfer one of the local anchors to a high-profile news anchor gig in Baltimore. It's just the kind of opportunity Christine has been looking for.

Now looking to secure this gig, Christine begins to heavily alter her approach to the news all while grappling with a host of mental health issues. Though never stated outright in the film itself, Christine is displaying signs of grappling with depression as well as certain traits associated with bipolar disorder. Combine that with her job ambitions as well as an impending vital surgery that would ensure she could never have children, and the lead character of Christine has plenty to deal with. No wonder the idea of coping with tragedy creeps into one's mind so much when watching this Antonio Campos directorial effort. One of the many smart moves in Craig Shilowich's screenplay is how it manages to explore the varying ways humans cope with tragedy without coming off as ham-fisted and clumsy.

In addition to the aforementioned singing/ice cream remedy Jean Reed employs, we also see throughout Christine that head news anchor George Peter Ryan copes with his addiction by attending a self-help group. Christine's mother finds relief from anxiety in the recreational use of marijuana. Even the owner of Christine's TV station, a wealthy guy with seemingly nary a care in the world, spends much of his screentime talking about how he's turned to heavy drinking to help process his worries. Everyone in the cast of Christine has a differing way of coping with all turmoil in their own individual lives. Such unique tactics do a great job of helping to flesh out the individual characters as people while it's utterly remarkable how naturally Christine is able to reveal these critical character details.

Ryan's self-help groups, for instance, come about organically through a sequence where Christine thinks she's finally going to go out with Ryan. Meanwhile, the TV station owner's drinking is revealed after Christine shows up at his home to figure out if there's any way she could procure the Baltimore news anchor gig. These are all moves that are totally natural for the character of Christine to do, while watching the movie, you'll be so absorbed by what's on-screen that won't think twice about the movie traveling down these storytelling paths. Afterward, though, you'll likely be like me and realize how well Christine is able to explore a wide variety of self-help techniques without sacrificing a cohesive narrative in the process.

It's one of many impressive facets of Shilowich's writing. Another of these facets is how he brilliantly takes the real-life trait of how Christine would regularly do puppet shows for kids in a hospital and, in the context of the narrative of Christine, uses sequences depicting Christine doing puppet shows as a chance to explore her evolve outlook on the world around her. Through seemingly innocuous puppet shows, you can see how the weight of Christine's life is taking a toll on this woman. One of the last puppet shows, where Christine via her puppet talks about the importance of just being quiet, is especially chilling. It's impressive how well Shilowich's writing is able to make this work as a kid-friendly performance on one level while also functioning as a horrifying glimpse into a mind newly withdrawn on another level.

That feat of on-screen actions working well on multiple levels is one of the absolute best parts of Christine. Director Antonio Campos proves to be well-equipped to handle such multi-layered writing, particularly in his control of the quietly haunting atmosphere of Christine. Even in a seemingly open comfortable space like a self-help group, Campos is able to instill a sense of unspoken unease stemming from the titular protagonist's bottled-up problems. Through the direction of Campos, you can feel a subtle but inevitable sense of ruination in the air of any given scene of Christine, like a gust of wind that indicates a heavy-duty storm on the horizon. Campos deserves props for executing such a tone well as a director but perhaps the person most responsible for the unnerving nature of Christine is Rebecca Hall.

Want a feature-length argument for why Rebecca Hall is such a criminally underrated talent? Christine is it. She does outstanding work in this role totally unlike anything else she's ever done as a performer. More importantly, she's also vastly different (in the best way possible) from typical Hollywood portrayals of tormented people with mental health issues. Compared to past performances of this ilk, Hall carries a more visceral and authentic quality to her work in Christine. Both her outbursts where she lashes out at people and especially scenes (like one where she carries on an interview with a chicken-lady with these haunting dead eyes) where she's keeping her worries contained. Her harrowing performance perfectly captures someone struggling to figure out how to navigate a tsunami of tragedy in her life. It also provides the perfect thoughtful anchor for such a richly-detailed movie like Christine.

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