In the most recent efforts of his 30-year documentary-filmmaking career, Errol Morris has found himself fascinated by—and fascinated us with—the stories of people commonly accepted to be villains, attempting to justify their vilified actions. But there’s something particularly unique about Tabloid’s primary subject, Joyce McKinney, that creates as wild a ride as you’ll find in a documentary.
McKinney was at the center of a famously lurid case, in which she was accused of tracking down her maybe-fiance Kirk Anderson on his Mormon mission in England in 1977, kidnapping him at gunpoint and spiriting him away to a remote cottage where she tied him to a bed and forced him to have sex. But McKinney insists Anderson went away with her voluntarily, shared a lovely weekend and only made his accusations to avoid the moral reproach of his family and church.
Morris gives McKinney plenty of time to tell her side of the story—Anderson refused to participate in the film—and she’s undeniably fascinating, with her North Carolina lilt and her obvious glee at the tricks she pulled off to jump bail and remain in hiding for months. British tabloid journalists who covered the case at the time also appear to share their discoveries—including a few that don’t square with McKinney’s portrait of herself—and it’s just as intriguing watching her spin things to preserve her take on reality.
The real-life facts grow so bizarre that at times it feels Tabloid is primarily about our own reaction to sex-and-craziness stories of this kind, whether it’s the details themselves or McKinney’s stubborn clinging to her interpretation. Morris may wallow in sensationalism a bit, but Tabloid provides a reminder that, no matter how sophisticated we think we are, there are certain headlines that we can’t help but stop to check out.