Tabloid Movie Review: Gotcha Sleaze, Bondage and Sacred Mormon Underwear

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Quite coincidentally in theatrical release just as the News Of The World hacking scandal boomerangs right back on Murdoch’s gossip media empire in the UK, is Errol Morris’ just about equally sleaze-driven documentary, Tabloid. And, with the intent behind this perverse excursion into the mind of a now aging US beauty queen – charged by the Brits with kidnapping a lapsed lover into sexual bondage nearly thirty-five years ago – likely up for audience debate ranging between investigative and exploitative. But more to the point, what in the world happened to Errol Morris?

In a sadly ever more typical case of the commercial media’s one side to every story modus operandi, Morris pursues with scandal sheet, literally guilty pleasure zeal the long unresolved case of Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming World contestant. McKinney was charged by British authorities in 1977 with pursuing her former fiance, religious fundamentalist Kirk Anderson, to the UK. Then kidnapping the reportedly unappealing, flabby object of desire while packing a gun, chloroform and a disguise wig she called Matilda. And holding him in sexual bondage at a rural cottage after he jilted her for, well, the Mormon Church.

Not so, the still vivacious, now frumpy sixtysomething McKinney insists for over an hour in details ranging from lurid to outright lunatic, seated before Morris’ camera. Whom she addresses as ‘Mister Filmmaker,’ while incredulously extolling her genius IQ and virginity during pursuit of determined boyfriend bondage. Her own mission to free the self-proclaimed Mormon missionary was instead, an altruistic bid to de-program the fickle flame, and liberate him through cult intervention. And then offering enticements that included warmed cinnamon oil for back rubs; color-coordinated bedsheets to match his blue eyes, a chain long enough to saunter now and then to the john; and his regulation Mormon sacred underwear ‘chastity suit’ unceremoniously tossed into the fireplace.

And while we wait patiently throughout this extended, mostly animated monotonous talking head gab session to hear from the male complainant who has remained silent these many years, Morris rather anti-climactically informs us by way of closing credits super-imposed postscript, that Anderson refused to be interviewed. So was this inquiry really necessary in the first place?

Apparently the UK authorities seem to have more doubts than Morris. The English court did sentence McKinney in absentia to a year in jail for ‘indecent assault on a man,’ but never sought extradition. Oddly enough, under the 1956 Sexual Offences Act back then, rape charges against women didn’t exist. So with McKinney jumping bail and fleeing England with false papers, and the elusive accuser not at all into pursuing the case, any reappraisal on the part of Morris in Tabloid appears quite DOA.

How then, to enliven a long dormant bizarre legal matter with only a cast of exceedingly unreliable, dubious witnesses on hand – ranging from McKinney herself along with unindicted co-conspirators, to UK tabloid reporters, aka smear campaign operatives. Which regrettably in this instance, may very well count Morris, uncharacteristically into lazy gotcha journalism and taking the low road. As for McKinney’s last word on the issue, can a woman rape a man? Not possible, Joyce giddily opines – ‘that’s like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter.’

So what we’re left with, is a simultaneously vintage and cartoonish big screen version of reality television, laced with an undercurrent of heterosexual paranoia towards female aggression. And a mean-spirited entrapment of an evidently clueless woman, far too mentally unbalanced to realize Morris, in collusion with the audience, is laughing not with but at her. No different from say, trotting out the disfigured and demented for the amusement of visitors, to circuses of thankfully bygone days. Tabloid, indeed.

Sundance Selects

Rated R

1 [out of 4] star

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.