Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 20, 2012)
From Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, 2010’s Tabloid takes on a “truth is stranger than fiction” tale. It looks at the story of Joyce McKinney, a one-time beauty queen.
Though she grew up in North Carolina, McKinney eventually moved to Utah, apparently with the main desire to meet and marry one of the clean-cut Mormon men there. She encounters Kirk Anderson and allegedly becomes immediately obsessed with him. McKinney claims that the two bonded instantly and planned to marry before he mysteriously vanished “in thin air”.
McKinney locates Anderson in England and decides that he’s been brainwashed by the “Mormon cult” to stay away from her. To combat this, she takes him to a rural cottage where she attempts to deprogram him and bring back the Kirk she knew and loved. Unfortunately, she can’t overcome the bonds of the “cult” and loses Kirk.
That’s her story, at least. An alternate viewpoint relates that McKinney became obsessed with Anderson, stalked, abducted and imprisoned him. Kirk eventually gets free, the authorities arrest Joyce – and all tabloid hell breaks loose, as the story of the “Manacled Mormon” dominates the UK press.
The program consists of the standard array of archival footage and modern interviews. In the latter, we hear from Joyce McKinney, Daily Express gossip columnist Peter Tory, former Mormon missionary Troy Williams, fixed-wing pilot Jackson Shaw, Daily Mirror photographer Kent Gavin and RNL Bio Co. LTD managing director Jin Han Hong.
If nothing else, Tabloid offers an extremely entertaining tale. Much of its value stems from the sheer oddness – perhaps craziness – of its main subject. Whether clinically nuts or just a mere kook, McKinney’s genuinely out there. She’s the flamboyant lead subject in her own little world and she never expresses any doubt about her viewpoints and beliefs, no matter how nutty they may sound.
Though five other participants appear, McKinney dominates Tabloid, and for good reason: it’s about her. However, I get the sense that even if she’d just been a tangential participant in the tale, she’d still get the most screen time simply because she’s such a wild personality. Morris lucks out since he has a logical reason to give so much of the movie to her.
Unfortunately, her dominance – and the limited roster of additional participants – tends to rob Tabloid of an objective feel. Not that I’m sure Morris ever really wants the movie to come across as a balanced take on the subject. He calls it Tabloid for a reason, and he treats the material in a manner that semi-fits that genre. Morris doesn’t play fast and loose with the facts, but he peppers the presentation with spicy elements and cuts and he lets the participants’ viewpoints do the talking; we don’t find a take on the subject matter that ever rises above the subjective.
Perhaps this is a meta-critique of the manner in which much media worries about sensationalism first and facts later, or maybe it’s simply a recognition that in this case, “the truth” is elusive. Tabloid offers a radically skewed tale because only one of its main participants chats on camera. Kirk Anderson refused to participate, and Keith May – McKinney’s alleged “co-conspirator” – died in 2004. This means that only one person directly involved in the events speaks – and the one person seems to offer a wholly self-involved, unreliable commentator.
Actually, it’s impossible to find a single interview subject who doesn’t appear to have a skewed viewpoint. Former missionary Williams probably seems the most objective simply because unlike the others, he had no direct connection to McKinney. However, it seems clear that he harbors resentment toward the Mormon Church, and a cursory look around the Internet confirms that, so it’s tough to say how much those feelings impact his statements about the institution.
It really is unfortunate that Anderson wouldn’t chat with Morris, as his viewpoint would’ve been invaluable. Of course, McKinney and probably others would discard his statements due to his “brainwashing”, but given that he was the alleged abductee, it’d be wonderful to hear him offer his take on matters.
Without Anderson, we’re left to Joyce and her ramblings – which means we’re left without the slightest clue what really happened. It’s not even clear to me whether or not Joyce and Kirk were ever an actual couple or that was just her fantasy. She claims they were in love and planned to marry, but I take virtually everything she says with a block of salt. Joyce comes across as such a self-serving fruitcake that her every utterance must be viewed as questionable.
I must admit frustration over the film’s inability – or unwillingness – to give us a better depiction of “the truth”. Again, this may be Morris’s desire, as he may prefer the notion that there is no one “truth” – we just have a mix of viewpoints.
However, this approach makes the film feel less like an investigation of events and more like a collection of yammering nincompoops. Oh, they’re exceedingly entertaining nincompoops, and they help spin a fascinating tale, but frustration inevitably accompanies the lack of much to allow the movie to satisfy our desire to know what really happened.
If you can get past this issue, Tabloid will present a brisk, involving documentary. Though I feel dissatisfied with its lack of narrative clarity, I find it more than entertaining enough to forgive those issues.