Kate Plays Christine


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Kate Lyn Sheil in Kate Plays Christine - this psychological thriller follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida television host who committed suicide on air in 1974. Christine’s tragic death was the inspiration for Network, and the mysteries surrounding her final act haunt Kate and the production.
"Robert Greene's intriguing semi-documentary explores the event through a process not dissimilar to Chubbuck's own." | Photo: Sean Price Williams

In 1974, the suicide rate in the US was at something of a high - 13 in every 1,000 deaths, a point it returned to last year. The death of Christine Chubbuck, however, stood out. Why? Because she was the first person to end her life live on air, during a Suncoast Digest newscast on Floridian local network WXLT-TV. Although it generated a lot of conversation at the time, the incident has since been largely forgotten. Robert Greene's intriguing semi-documentary explores the event through a process not dissimilar to Chubbuck's own.

Where do art and reality intersect? Though she seemed to have serious reasons for it - a history of depression, a previous suicide attempt, recent sexual rejection and the fading of her hope to become a mother - Chubbuck's death was a very deliberate performance. It was even scripted, with material provided for a subsequent newscaster to read out after her death. How did she prepare herself to be able to go through with this, to play this role? Enter actress Kate Lyn Sheil, ostensibly preparing to play Chubbuck in a TV movie (which, needless to say, doesn't really exist). The film carries us through her process, right up to that challenging final scene. Can she imitate what Chubbuck did, or will her increasing closeness to her character actually make it harder?

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We first see Sheil as she is having a cap fitted to her head; hidden under a wig, it will allow blood to explode from just above her left ear as she fires a gun. Wearing the plastic apparatus she looks alien, unlike herself. During the slow process of transformation that follows she acquires the aforementioned wig, has brown contact lenses placed in her blue eyes, gets a spray tan, seeks out advice - in the curious absence of footage of the dead woman - to help her get her movement and intonation right. The more she researches Chubbuck's decidedly unremarkable life, the more she seems to slip into depression herself - and how much of this is Sheil-as-self or Sheil-as-actor is hard to determine - so that by that final scene, having seen her buy a gun, one can't help but wonder if she has dangerous plans of her own.

An insight into the acting process for those who don't appreciate just how much strain playing a depressed character can cause, Kate Plays Christine also has questions to as about the nature of based-on-a-true-story filmmaking, and, indeed, about documentary. The real footage of Chubbuck's death has been hidden away. Arguments have taken place over whether it should be preserved as a piece of history or thrown into the bay. Sheil increasingly questions the ethics of showing the death at all, even as a reconstruction. Why do we need to see it? Greene, however, has carefully primed the viewer, from that first scene all the way through a script peppered with references to it, deliberately piquing curiosity. It's easy to connect with Sheil's developing obsession, harder to walk the same path. In this way, Greene forces us to ask questions about ourselves as well.

Some will find this film too dry. There's a deliberate refusal to engage with the sensationalism that frequently surrounds suicide, or to allow for the notion of Chubbuck's death as some kind of revolutionary statement. in the end, Sheil argues, she achieved nothing. That emptiness, like the actor-as-vessel, like death itself, sits at the core of the film. What you see unfolding around it will depend on what you're willing to entertain.

Reviewed on: 23 Oct 2016
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An actress prepares to play Christine Chubbuck, who died by suicide live on air in 1974.

Director: Robert Greene

Writer: Robert Greene

Starring: Kate Lyn Shiel

Year: 2016

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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