Director Robert Greene returns with the enthrallingly complex docudrama Kate Plays Christine, which follows actress indie darling Kate Lyn Sheil (best known for her role as Lisa Williams in House of Cards) as she prepares for the challenging and emotionally charged role of Christine Chubbuck, an American news reporter of the seventies who committed suicide during a live television broadcast. The documentary explores our morbid desire to see death and destruction, something that can be best summed up by the closing scene as Kate looks directly into the camera and bitterly says “you’re all sadists”. I readily admit that I am one of these sadists, having had the initial motive to watch the tragic death of this woman. Greene manages to address this need as the tension subtly builds up, our eyes never leaving the screen, our thoughts never wandering off. This is achieved by having the enigmatic tape of the suicide constantly being mentioned throughout the film, and yet it is never shown because it is never obtained.
The film first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, taking home the Special Jury Prize. It’s not hard to see why. The most distinguishing element of the documentary was the fantastic cinematography, particularly the camerawork. Greene shoots the film in a way that gives off the impression that we are watching a fictional movie rather than a non-fiction thriller, which I found made Kate Plays Christine more absorbing to watch. Greene switches effortlessly between the movie scenes that they’re shooting, which is reminiscent to a seventies soap opera, and the research aspect of the plot. This subsequently creates an almost seamless flow of dialogue between the actors that carries an awkward undertone.
Kate Sheil is an ambiguous presence on the screen, and it’s this quality that allows the film to progress and culminate in the death. Her elusiveness, coupled with Greene’s camerawork forces us to question what’s real and what’s not. Fact and fiction become intertwined, perplexingly creating a more honest and raw portrayal of Christine. To be able to watch Sheil develop as an actress so closely and intimately was a disconcerting experience yet simultaneously it gave Kate Plays Christine a razor sharp edge to it. Sheil almost parallels Chubbuck’s steady decline into a dark pit of depression, although she doesn’t quite manage to reach it. This paints a convoluted picture, as Kate struggles to unearth Christine’s driving motivation to end her life. The ethics of this struggle, of trying to figure out how to depict this woman’s fragile life on the screen is what makes the story such a troubling and difficult puzzle to watch. It uncomfortably exposes our curious attraction to tragedy, and our inexplicable fascination with blood and guts, as Christine (and therefore Kate) emphasised before she shot herself.
I went into this movie expecting an excitingly dramatic tragedy but came out of that cinema with much more than that. This isn’t just a docudrama, it’s a gritty movie from the start, possessing many darker and deeper levels than expected, which can be a challenge to keep up with. With the recent spike in interest in documentaries, this is definitely not one to be missed.