Movie Review 2016:’Kate Plays Christine’ is a Dark and Unique Documentary

Kate Plays Christine' poster

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This psychological thriller follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida television host who committed suicide on air in 1974. Christine’s tragic death was the inspiration for Network, and the mysteries surrounding her final act haunt Kate and the production.

Reality can be more bewildering than fiction. On the surface level, the documentary Kate Plays Christine is about an actress, Kate Lyn Sheil, researching a challenging role for an unnamed film project. Christine Chubbuck was a real news anchor who worked at Sarasota’s WXLT-TV in 1974 and shocked viewers by shooting herself in the head live, on camera, taking her life. This moment became something of legend, then was largely forgotten but at times interest in the incident is renewed. The film’s writer, director & editor Robert Greene quickly leaps between archival footage, behind-the-scenes snippets and a few dramatized recreations, forcing you to think, first, about what is fact and fiction and then, where the two should meet.

On a technical level, Robert Greene is operating at high precision. At one point during Kate Plays Christine lightning strikes during a dialogue scene on the very same beach the funeral service for the film’s subject, Christine Chubbuck, was held. Did the camera crew just start recording and hope they caught something? Was it CG? I thought I had a good grasp on what was what in this investigative docudrama. Instead, I found I was sucked into a spiral of intrigue surrounding one woman’s horrific actions and returning to this question again and again – where do you draw the line?

In an echo chamber culture where modern media and social media has made it nearly impossible to suppress visuals and their virus-like spread, we crave authenticity. And this action was an undeniably frank declaration by Christine. But this instance, witnessed by many on television and written about extensively, has not been seen since it aired. The lack of viewing it elevated it into mythical air and this documentary tries to deconstruct the myth by having Sheil retrace Chubbuck’s life, especially the turmoil involving her work conflicting with her passion. There is no celebration to this story, no praise for Christine’s choice, but in examining her life this way we feel more of her tragedy. In many ways, it is the opposite of Searching for Sugar Man, turning over a rock of dark emotion, and for the most part, I think it succeeds.

We explore what little is known of a woman at the end of her path, as well as what the ramifications of Christine’s act might mean. At the centre of something so dizzying, there needs to be an anchor. And that is the incredible work of actress Kate Lyn Sheil. The term “immersed” gets tossed around plenty in film. Sheil is indeed immersive, getting a thick, spray-on tan, brown contact lenses, watching rare footage of Christine, visiting her former offices, buying the gun she bought from the gunshop owners who sold her the gun in the first place, even walking around in her old home. She implies early she is fed up with people describing her work as subtle and she is an amazing force here.

I love how this film bewitches our perception of the winding path to its grim conclusion. It is fascinating in how it chooses to critique a story of depression that has been unseen and rarely discussed for forty years. Kate Plays Christine is a bold documentary. When 2016 is done, I think it will be among the most unique and engrossing films of the year.