Christine (2016), starring Rebecca Hall and directed by Antonio Campos, is a heartbreaking look into a small window of time in one troubled woman's life. It's an uncompromising and thoughtful examination of how mental illness, work-related stress, relationship and health anxieties, and the lack of a solid support network combined to push Christine Chubbuck's life further into despair, despondency, and ultimately death.
Christine is inspired by true events, namely the life of Florida news reporter Christine Chubbuck leading up to her shocking 1974 on-camera suicide. The film pulls from Christine's life story and dramatizes her final days leading up to that tragic moment. As an audience, we know the ending to the story. That sense of inevitable sadness permeates the film. Therefore, every awkward moment that depicts Christine struggling against depression to just connect with someone—be it her coworker George Ryan (Michael C. Hall), for whom she has an unrequited crush, or her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), who is also her roommate—is even more agonizing when we consider how her life might have turned out had she been able make that connection.
To say Christine's relationship with her boss Michael Nelson (Tracy Letts) is fractured would be an understatement. Michael exhibits contempt for Christine's social awkwardness and her intense approach to her career. He's also anti-feminist and a misogynist. The two argue constantly over the types of stories the station should broadcast, with Michael insisting that "blood and guts" sells, while Christine scoffs that's not news, it's simply sensationalism. This conflict also provides commentary on today's dominate style of news coverage, as "blood and guts" coverage has won out, clearly. In 1974 Christine was fighting a losing battle, and we know it, only adding to the film's sense of sadness.
Several times during the film, Campos utilizes the narrative device of Christine volunteering at a children's hospital in order to allow Hall to express Christine's inner turmoil through puppet shows she puts on for the kids. In one instance, she has a puppet express that sometimes we just want someone to sit beside us, to be quiet with us, to simply be with us. We're meant to see how Christine craves that kind of relationship, one in which she can just be still with another person, not having to understand them or explain herself and the myriad obtrusive and depressing thoughts racing through her head. Our hearts sink at the realization that she will never find that sort of support in her lifetime.
The Sarasota news station is struggling financially, plus the owner wants to poach some on-air talent for his Baltimore station. Christine sees this as the opportunity she's been looking for, hoping she can channel her focus away from life's stresses and into something productive. She's recently discovered the cause of her frequent stomach pains: an ovary that needs to be removed, and soon. However, its removal might decrease her chances of every becoming pregnant. Christine wants children, and a husband, but she's also a 29 year old virgin.
This anxiety, coupled with her feelings for George and her job pressures ultimately become too much for the already fragile Christine to handle. Later, upon finding out that George is going to Baltimore and taking the perky bottle-blonde sports anchor with him, Christine is devastated. It's the last straw. She's just lost her chance at everything she's wanted—the new job in a bigger market and a relationship with George. Her despair is now irreversible, her path inevitable. She's made a plan and she goes about executing it coldly, calmly. In front of the camera she reads from her notes, "In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in 'blood and guts', and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide." Even though we know it's coming, and it's over in an instant, it's still gut-wrenching.
Rebecca Hall gives one of the finest performances on film in recent memory. As the focus of the story, she anchors the entire film, appearing in nearly every scene. From the start she presents a Christine who is suffering, and has clearly been suffering all of her life. Then over the course of the days and weeks covered in the film's running time, Hall shows us how much every single defeat compounds Christine's depression and sense of hopelessness. Rarely has an actor expressed so well what it's like to feel like an outsider in the world. As Christine, Hall expertly shows us how someone can walk among other people every day, yet still be apart from them all, always. In many ways, her Christine is high-functioning, carrying on with the daily chores of life and holding down a job at the same time. But her tipping point is nearing, and with each successive emotional blow she sustains, she falls faster into the abyss.
That's largely due to Rebecca Hall's career-defining performance. Both Hall and the film have received overwhelming critical praise, with Hall being nominated for and winning several awards. Of course, awards are arbitrary and meaningless, certainly not true indicators of an actor's greatness. Still, it's astounding that Hall was not even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. In an extremely difficult role, she completely absorbs herself into the character of Christine, to the point where we can't see her working at the performance at all. It's all so disturbingly natural. Hall has always had an intensity to her, a magnetism that draws you in no matter the role she's playing. It's all right there in her eyes, which seem to radiate sorrow tinged with some hope. Few actors today express emotions as well as she does with only her eyes and facial expressions. She can project sadness, sensitivity, and loneliness with such extreme honesty that it practically hurts to watch. Plus, it makes those brief moments where Christine is hopeful, or guffaws with genuine laughter, all the more tragic. Hall has been acting in films for some time now, but Christine is her breakout role.
Christine presents a harrowing portrait of a woman on the edge, searching desperately for some way to connect, and a community and society that simply don't know how to help her. At times the film is agonizing to watch, in no small part due to Rebecca Hall's revelatory performance. It's an important film that explores important issues, including both the difficulty of living with and the stigma of mental illness, sexism in the workplace and the glass ceiling faced by many women, and our world's continued obsession with sensationalism in news coverage. It’s one of the best films of the last year, and because of Hall's unflinching and unforgettable performance, also one of the most important films in recent memory.