This much we know is true: On the morning of July 15, 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a TV reporter who hosted a community affairs show on the Sarasota, Fla., station WXLT, shot herself in the head nine minutes into a live broadcast.
The rest of “Christine,” a drama that recounts the weeks leading up to her suicide, incorporates elements of Chubbuck’s life into a fictional narrative of uncommon depth and empathy. Written by Craig Shilowich (this is his first screenplay) and directed by Antonio Campos (“Afterschool,” “Simon Killer”) the movie trains its focus on its eponymous heroine — an awkward, conflicted woman who keeps trying to succeed in her life and career, only to continually fail — and never looks away, even when you wish it would.
Played by Rebecca Hall in the sort of transforming performance that makes you feel like you’re seeing this actress for the first time, Chubbuck walked into situations with her head and shoulders leaning forward, as if she was always bracing for a fight. Her long black hair, parted in the middle and draped around her face like a shroud, gave her an unintentionally severe look; her eyes seem to be constantly crying for help.
The plot of “Christine” is kept intentionally simple, so as to never get in the way of the movie’s uncommonly detailed character study. Christine harbors a crush on the station’s news anchor (Michael C. Hall), who may or may not share her feelings. Their boss (Tracy Letts) tells them that ratings are down and that their stories need to be juicier. Christine disapproves of her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), who lives with her and is dating a new guy. “Why won’t anyone just listen to me?” she asks her mom in exasperation. But Christine is actually the one who isn’t listening to anyone around her.
Campos, whose previous two pictures were also studies of alienated people in a perpetual state of a mental breakdown, keeps the visual style simple, like the TV station’s ’70s-era decor. But he uses a complex sound mix to subconsciously rattle your nerves. The movie gets to you: It’s absorbing and uncomfortable at the same time, as if it were giving you a glimpse at the unknowable.
Hall’s performance captures the tragedy of a woman who is constantly reminded of her own failings and tries to overcome them in all the wrong ways. She’s such a fascinating, faceted character that halfway through “Christine” you almost forget about what’s coming — until the scene in which Chubbuck buys a gun, and then you start to dread it.