Tabloid (documentary)

Errol Morris must have felt like it was time to lighten up. After his last few documentaries addressed the death penalty, Holocaust deniers, the Vietnam War, and Abu Ghraib, his new one tells an astonishing-but-true story about an insane-but-functional woman named Joyce McKinney. It’s called “Tabloid,” and its purpose is not enlightenment but entertainment.

In 1977, England was delighted by a news story about a North Carolina girl who had come to the U.K. looking for the boyfriend who had left her and was now working as a Mormon missionary. The young man, Kirk Anderson, said that when Joyce McKinney found him in the midst of his religious labors, she abducted him, tied him to a bed, and made him have sex with her. When she was arrested, McKinney insisted it had all been consensual, though she also insisted Anderson was being held by the Mormons against his will, which was manifestly untrue.

Well, you can see why the story amused the Brits. “The case of the manacled Mormon!” screamed the headlines. The idea of a woman raping a man made for fascinating cocktail conversation; the fact that the man in question was a Mormon missionary made it especially provocative. Out on bail, McKinney became a media darling, photographed at movie premieres and at parties with rock stars. When she and her accomplice, Keith May, fled to the United States (in disguise, with fake passports), McKinney had 13 suitcases full of press clippings.

In his usual fashion, Morris simply trains the camera on McKinney and lets her tell her story. Say what you will about her — that she’s a rancid, delusional trollop, for example — there’s no denying she’s a colorful character. Her Southern accent and flair for the theatrical make her a lively interview subject. When the things she says are contradicted by other talking heads, including journalists who covered the story in 1977 and a man she hired at the time to help her find Anderson, she becomes an object of fascination. She is clearly not telling the truth about some things, and yet she seems to believe her story so intently. She obviously loves being the center of attention, yet she claims all the publicity ruined her life. When anything negative is reported about her — like, for instance, that she worked part-time as an S&M mistress for hire — she acts wounded and aggrieved, like everyone’s just out to get her. In her view, she has never done anything wrong, ever, and none of her problems have been her own fault. Anything that would appear to suggest otherwise is a distortion or fabrication.

What Morris has realized is the same thing the tabloids have always known: that people with an outlandish sense of self-regard make for riveting entertainment. In keeping with the theme of sensationalized reporting, Morris indulges in a bit of tabloidism himself. McKinney despises the Mormon church, blaming it for turning Anderson against her. When she rails spitefully against the faith’s ceremonies and doctrines — the specifics of which have nothing to do with the matter at hand — Morris helpfully finds a random, sarcastic ex-Mormon to offer further insight into how weird Mormons are. For illustration purposes, he uses clips from a film called “The Godmakers,” a ludicrously slanted and long discredited anti-Mormon screed from 1982. Quoting “The Godmakers” in a story about Mormons is like quoting Mel Gibson in a story about Judaism.

While this sort of arbitrary disrespect will be offensive to Mormons, it fits with the theme of “Tabloid,” which is that sensationalism sells. No matter who’s talking, Morris is eager to make fun of their foibles, to underscore their peculiarities. (One of the journalists refers to Anderson’s manacled position as “spread-eagle”; Morris flashes the words “spread-eagle” on the screen every time he does.) He only corrects their falsehoods when doing so will stir things up further. Otherwise, he lets them stand. Joyce McKinney is a freak show, engaging in one crazy shenanigan after another: the “manacled Mormon” story was just the start. None of her insane adventures are “relevant,” per se, except insofar as they give us one more thing to be entertained by.

Morris has made insightful and thought-provoking documentaries in the past (see especially “Mr. Death” and “Fog of War”), and he probably will again. “Tabloid” is nothing more than a lark, the equivalent of glancing at the goofy headlines in the checkout line and then forgetting all about them.

B (1 hr., 27 min.; R, quite a few glimpses of nude photos.)