I don’t mind documentaries with agendas – not at all – as long as they support their ideas with enough fact to back up their particular point. Because the agendas highlighted in Tabloid are backed by a completely troubled psychopath and an obviously biased equally-as-odd opinionated commentator that has no connection to the stories at hand, it’s really hard to connect with Tabloid. Had Tabloid fluidly followed the single intriguing story at hand, perhaps then it would be the fantastic documentary that it has the potential to be.
Tabloid is an interview-driven documentary that tells three quirky stories from the outrageous life of criminally insane Joyce McKinney. Joyce was raised as a beauty pageant child. While growing up, she set certain ideals for herself – the most important being to marry “Prince Charming.” Like a child who grew up constantly being told that she was a perfect little princess, Joyce believes she is an innocent, beautiful woman who can do no wrong. No matter what, everything will be just fine because she’s a pretty princess.
The first wild story about Joyce revolves around her moving to Utah and falling in love with a young Mormon teenager in 1977. At the age of 19, most Mormon boys leave for two years to work as missionaries in different parts of the world. When her Mormon boyfriend left on his mission, she hired a private dick to locate him. When he turned up in England, she somehow came up with an excessively high amount of cash money, hired a pilot and a team of bodyguards, flew to the U.K., kidnapped him at gunpoint, chained him to a bed and forced him into having sex for several days – all with the help of a few cohorts. The scandal became known as the “Mormon Sex In Chains Case” or the “Case of the Manacled Mormon.”
If Tabloid followed the “Case of the Manacled Mormon” through to its end, it would be an strongly interesting documentary – but it doesn’t. Joyce, a couple of her accomplices, a random ex-Mormon and two tabloid journalists walk you through this part of her story. Because the kidnapped Mormon missionary refused to be interviewed for Tabloid, director Errol Morris hinges the entire film on the words of Joyce – which are left questionable after future events in the film. Completely one-sided, Morris lets Joyce ramble on – the more she talks, the more crazy she appears. But Morris still crams in as much anti-Mormon propaganda as he can.
Appearing just as zany as Joyce herself is obviously-angry with the Mormon church Troy Williams. In the film, he is never credited as being anything more than an ex-Mormon missionary. Upon doing post-screening homework, I discovered that he is deemed the “Harvey Milk of Utah Gay Politics.” Without any background or accreditation, Troy sounds like an equally as crazy bag of nuts as Joyce, constantly calling the Mormon church a cult and accusing them of brainwashing. His accusations seem to derive from the bitter emotions stirred by being ousted by the Mormon church – not from fact. Just as with Joyce, it’s hard to take anything he says as nothing more than opinion.
While watching this, the first half of Tabloid, I couldn’t figure out if the film was trying to be anti-Mormon in nature or if it was simply trying to show how crazy anti-Mormons themselves are. To be honest, I still don’t know! Which is weirder: the unique and strange Christian church or the wackos accusing of them of brainwashing? It’s hard to decipher where the purpose of the documentary lies. You be the judge.
The second half of Tabloid starts off with Joyce’s arrest, her escape to America and her bout with the tabloids – easily the most interesting part of the whole film. The oddness of the “Case of the Manacled Mormon” drew a widely large tabloid following. In essence, Joyce became an overnight celebrity – and it’s obvious that she enjoyed being in the limelight.
Just after jumping bail and fleeing to America, she set up an exclusive (supposedly) tell-all interview with a British tabloid to set the record straight. She claimed that the missionary willingly went with her, that he wanted to have sex with her and to ultimately escape the (supposed) grasps of the Mormon church. At the same time, another British tabloid was cracking into Joyce’s elusive past. What they dig up? Photos – and lots of them – of Joyce as a nude S&M (sadomasochism) part-time prostitute. Everything that Joyce had claimed, the humble and innocent painting of her past, was completely shattered with photographic proof backing it up. Once you realize that her entire past is full of contrived lies, it’s hard to believe anything she says – especially her claims about the actual kidnapping.
The quick and completely out-of-place final act of the film follows Joyce 20 years later when she managed to rear her head into the media once again. In 2008, Joyce had her dead dog cloned in Korea. While the subject matter itself has nothing to do with anything previously shown in the film, it strongly supports the idea that Joyce is nothing more than an attention-deprived child striving to get people to look at her. The final acts conveys the feeling that absolutely everything she has ever done – including the interviews for Tabloid – has been in the interest of rising to the ranks of “celebrity.”
The subject matter of Tabloid is wildly entertaining. The interviews with Joyce and other crazies are so “out there” that you cannot believe they are actually being spoken by (supposedly) sane adults. Shouting conspiracy and acting like paranoid schizophrenics, scripted words from fictional stories are never this good. But the biggest problem with Tabloid is its lack of focus.
What is the purpose of Tabloid? Is it to trod on Mormon ideals? Is it to criticize tabloids, paprazzi and the celebrity lifestyle? Is it anti-cloning? Who knows. But I can tell you what it’s not. It’s not a film about the “Case of the Manacled Mormon” because we never see it through. Despite one half of the film focusing entirely on explaining Joyce’s side of the story, we are never told how it ends. We never even know what happened when she was finally arrested by the FBI after sneaking back into the United States. No resolution to “Mormon Sex in Chains Case” is ever given.
If the purpose of Tabloid is to be nothing more than “Diaries of a Barking Mad Woman,” then it sorely misses tell opportunity of fully telling the intriguing story at hand. Instead, the movie serves as a cliff notes version the “Case of the Manacled Mormon” where the actual ending is removed and inserted in its place is footage of loony Joyce’s interviews and nude photos.
Tabloid gets a “C” for scratching the surface of an enthralling now-unheard of story, but easily could have been an “A” film had it known what it was trying to be.
Photo credit: Sundance Selects