The accidentally timely Tabloid must have documentary filmmaker Errol Morris thanking his lucky stars for Rupert Murdoch's misfortune. If Morris' last picture, Standard Operating Procedure, was news of the world, Tabloid is News of the World.
Morris is best known for rooting out idiosyncratic (if not outright bizarre) figures and throwing the spotlight on them. His leading lady here is Joyce McKinney, a former "Miss Wyoming World" who became infamous as the star of the "Mormon sex in chains" scandal of 1977. Though Morris probably had you at "Mormon sex," it's the "in chains" bit that gives the film one of its most memorable moments, when a tabloid reporter confesses that they were probably ropes, but "chains" just had that extra frisson of kink. In extensive, candid interview footage, McKinney shows no sign of shame or self-awareness, just an eagerness to play, once more, to an audience ("Thank God for all those years of drama school"). To hear her tell it, accusations of kidnapping and rape were actually misunderstandings of her "honeymoon," the climax of "A Very Special Love Story" (the title of her unfinished memoir).
Claiming a friend would call her "Holier Than Thou" McKinney "because I was so straight," Joyce describes meeting Mormon fella Kirk Anderson and embarking on a relationship. But when Anderson disappeared into Mormon missionary work, McKinney wouldn't let it go. Convinced her hubby was being brainwashed by shame-based religion, she tracked down her man in London, whisked him away to a secluded cottage, and tried to, um, love him back to his senses. Whether the sex was mutual (with a twist of S&M) or rape remains a case of he said, she said, and "the manacled Mormon" understandably didn't grant Morris an interview.
Instead, we hear from McKinney and her accomplices, and Morris encourages us to read between the lines about whom knew what and when. Without ever making any overt comment, Morris knows how to give 'em enough rope to hang themselves; that said, given the impossibility of objectivity on their parts, neither McKinney nor Anderson has or had a monopoly on the truth about what happened. Morris' approach to retelling the case has an impish, winking quality to it: though we never see him on camera, it's easy to conjure the image of the filmmaker smiling, with a wink and a nod. At one point, a pilot Joyce hired recalls, "Joyce had a lot of baggage," a literal comment that all too easily reads as a deadpan pun.
Adding a larger dimension to the story are the smug tabloid journos who exploited the story for maximum personal gain. They prove as shamless as McKinney, and it is in their nature to entrap even more so than in McKinney's. The true common denominator between the tabloid reporters and their subject is narcissism, the difference between feeling entitled to claim one's desires without asking and feeling compelled to play by the social rules. But Morris also implies that the tabs are only giving us (himself included) what we want, The existence of "Tabloid" testifies to Morris' attraction to the salacious, and if you watch his film, you implicate yourself along with him.
Morris also doesn't apologize for falling into his own obsession with Joyce, a character who seems to make him a bit giddy behind the camera. She comes across as alternatingly charming—a Southern drawl helps—and kooky, and Morris seizes on every happy irony and quirk (McKinney turns out, for example, to be a Franco Zeffirelli fan, evidenced by references to Romeo and Juliet and Brother Sun, Sister Moon). With no apparent self-awareness of the deeper implications, she likens herself to Narcissus in the concluding lines of her unfinished memoir ("Like Narcissus, she is pining to death, dying of a broken heart").
Morris saves the weirdest twist for last, as McKinney's secondary obsessive love, for dogs, comes to the fore. Her enduring love for a dog named Booger launched McKinney briefly back into international prominence, giving new meaning to one reporter's appraisal of Joyce as "barking mad." Tabloid ultimately doesn't amount to much more than an entertaining trip through some "news of the weird"—and it's hard not to feel Joyce shouldn't have her need for attention fed, especially since people are laughing at and not with her. But Morris compellingly unfolds the story and clearly means for us to see our own untoward qualities writ large in Joyce and the circus surrounding her.
[A version of this review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]