For a man who has spent the last decade pouring money and love into (albeit brilliant) dissections of the twisted personalities that went into the invention of the electric chair, the Vietnam quagmire and the Abu Ghraib scandal, it must have been liberating for master documentary filmmaker Errol Morris to connect with one Joyce McKinney. She’s a bright, peppy woman with an insane story to tell – one that, thankfully, doesn’t involve war or death but kinky sex, religious quackery and, at one point, cloned puppies – who happens to be fully capable of telling that story all by herself.
On the other hand, the giddy glee that must have come with getting McKinney in Morris’ patented Interrotron – a camera rig that gets more up-close and personal than typical talking-head interviews – could easily translate onscreen as smug or exploitative. It’s a line Morris toes expertly and invigoratingly in Tabloid, the story of McKinney’s wild life and how U.K. tabloid muckrakers in the late ’70s tore the woman to shreds exercising the dark side of that giddiness.
Without giving away too many plot twists – at a brisk 87 minutes, the narrative zig-zag comprises most of the fun – her story goes like this: The one-time Miss Wyoming falls for a young Mormon who, upon being called for his “mission,” disappears without a trace. McKinney then spends huge money gathering her own coterie of sexually bedazzled bodyguards (and one horny pilot) and flies to England where they’ve tracked the “Manacled Mormon” down. They then abduct the young man and shuttle him to a cottage where she attempts to fuck the religion right out of him and, she hopes, get pregnant.
McKinney is ecstatic and considers it a kind of honeymoon. The Mormon, however, considers it rape, mostly because, according to him, he was tied spread-eagle to a bed the whole time. Later, the Mormons reclaim the man and the story breaks, turning McKinney into the subject of countless tabloid headlines – a calamity (or blessing, as she saw it) only furthered by the discovery of advertisements and photos of a younger McKinney offering escort services that include bondage play. And that’s only the beginning.
Any film that elicits wide-eyed comments like, “What a story!” afterward is inherently successful. That’s not to say, however, that Tabloid doesn’t fall prey to certain excesses; Morris too often superimposes words or phrases that stand out as particularly zany as the subjects say them – an annoying and wholly unnecessary trick. Yet when the story catches up to McKinney’s tragically self-absorbed present-day life, Morris backs off and allows us to feel our first traces of empathy for the woman.
Like a visit to a post-menopausal relative in isolated retirement, there’s a point when McKinney’s value as a storyteller comes with the price of having to endure narrative dead ends, sad sidebar tales of her beloved dog and a general, untrustworthy glint of insanity in her eyes. But just when it seems the film’s fate rests with McKinney’s dwindling inertia, she roars back with more tabloid-grabbing wackiness, this time involving the aforementioned cloned puppies, and Tabloid gets to go out with a head-tilting bang. Well done, Joyce.