Earlier in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, I saw Antonio Campos’ Christine, a fictionalized account of the events leading up to the real, on-air suicide of Sarasota reporter Christine Chubbuck. As I said in my review of that film, Campos’ film wasn’t able to gleam any insight into Chubbuck’s behavior and his examination of her psychology felt superficial at best. The film’s strongest aspect was Rebecca Hall’s performance, and it’s an unfortunate coincidence that Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine sent my mind drifting to another movie rather than staying focused on his, which follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil preparing to play Chubbuck for a separate movie based on the reporter’s life and death. However, even with a focus on Sheil, Kate Plays Christine only serves to further vex viewers over Chubbuck’s death before needlessly chastising the audience.
Sheil wants to give a respectful performance, but the role has some major hurdles. First, the only reason the film is being made is because of Chubbuck’s death. As someone who knew her points out, she didn’t live an extraordinary life and the only reason we’re interested in her is that she committed suicide on live television. How can you pay your respect when any interest is based on a macabre fascination with an event that has slipped into Sarasotan urban legend?
Second, even though Chubbuck was a TV reporter, it’s incredibly difficult to find footage of her. Sheil spends a large portion of the movie trying to track down any video of Chubbuck, but continues to hit dead ends. Instead, she even admits that she meets people who are “six degrees removed but still have an opinion on why she did it.” These fruitless interviews make Kate Plays Christine feel repetitive and pointless as we’re left to wonder why Sheil cares so much about this woman that neither she, nor anyone, really seems to know all that well.
The truth behind both Christine and Kate Plays Christine is that there is no definitive answer, and even if there was, it wouldn’t make things any better. But rather than try to dig deeper for some larger truth perhaps about mental illness or our fascination with violence, both films are stuck. Kate Plays Christine ultimately lashes out at its audience for being “sadists” even though it goes so far as having Sheil walk around Chubbuck’s old home. Sheil and Greene’s claim that they want to pay respect to Chubbuck completely breaks down by this point because walking around the home of a woman who died over 40 years ago isn’t going to provide any insight into her life or death. It’s where the movie crosses over into the fetishistic, and it’s too far gone to turn back.
Both Campos and Greene thought they had a juicy story, but neither knew what to do with it, and as a result, both of their movies feel exploitative. At least Campos’ picture makes it to the end and has a strong central performance anchoring the movie. Greene, unable to even put together a complete vision, reduces his picture to an actor over-preparing and under-thinking her role before serving as an empty mouthpiece.