Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Stranger than fiction. Too good to be true. Such categories may be the stock in trade of sensation-happy tabloid journalism, but they are equally, if from a slightly different angle, the currency of Academy award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris – and in his ninth feature, he may just have found their perfect incarnation. For if Morris has always been interested in how truth can be mediated, distorted and obscured, his latest subject Joyce McKinney straddles the fine line between true romantic and deluded fantasist. "You know, you can tell a lie for long enough that you believe it," she says of the man who accused her of multiple rape – but in her own torrid life story, it is difficult to tell exactly where the truth lies.

When McKinney met Kirk Anderson in 1977, it was love at first – "like in the movies", as she so tellingly points out in her candid interview with Morris. The problem was that this beautiful, outspoken former Miss Wyoming with an IQ of 168 was apparently a little too much for the Mormon, or at least for his church community, and he was promptly dispatched to do missionary work abroad. Not one to let her ideal man get away that easily, McKinney tracked Anderson down to England where, helped by a male accomplice, she rescued Anderson from the Church of Latter Day Saints and took him to a cottage in rural Devon - which she expressly compares to the idyllic countryside seen in Zeffirelli's religious biopic Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972). There, reconciled at last, the couple made sweet and vigorous love for three days, amidst talk of marriage, children and a lifelong future spent together. Or, if you accept Anderson's account, he was kidnapped at gunpoint, tied to the bed, and repeatedly forced to have sex by his deranged captor. Or more probably, as former Mormon missionary Troy Williams suggests, Anderson went willingly with McKinney, and then later had second thoughts and changed his story accordingly to secure his place within his faith.

At this point, attracted by the heady scent of kinky sex and oddball religion, the British tabloids took interest, and McKinney found herself a cause célèbre in what was becoming known as the incident of the 'manacled Mormon'. McKinney skipped bail for America. "I never fled," she insists, "I left"; but nonetheless she 'left' disguised in a fat suit and pretending to be a deaf/mute to get through customs unrecognised. Back in the US, she negotiated an exclusive on her idealised, eternal love for Anderson with the Daily Express' Peter Tory who, interviewed now, regards himself as having been fooled by McKinney, but who still reveals a keen professional predilection for embellishing stories with salacious details, however loosely related to the truth. In the meantime, rival British paper The Mirror was painting an altogether more sordid picture of her, using a series of photos (either uncovered or entirely fabricated, depending upon whose account you believe) of her alleged past as a glamour model and bondage mistress.

All the negative media attention would drive McKinney to a life of isolation and agoraphobia – until, decades later, she was to find new love in the most unexpected of quarters, and a new profile back in the international spotlight - and without giving too much away, let's just say that the new object of her affections certainly does come all tied up and willingly obedient to his mistress' every demand.

Morris traces this perfect tabloid tale in all its hilarious, sad and bizarre particulars (meetings on nudist beaches, a wig named 'Mathilda', 'magic underwear', interplanetary salvations and 'doo-doo diggers') while suggesting that the truth is both hostage to media interests and hidden in a Fog of Love. Indeed, a key motif here is duplicity in its most literal sense. McKinney divides her Mormon lover into 'Kirk No. 1' ("the man I fell in love with") and 'Kirk No. 2' (the brainwashed, 'robot' Kirk). Similarly McKinney finds headlines referring to her 'Jeckyll and Hyde world', as different papers simultaneously vie to portray her as nun and whore. And if all the main players here seem to lead double lives, the story will end with a rather different kind of substitution and duplication.

Probably closest in tone to Morris' first documentary feature Gates Of Heaven (1978), Tabloid lives up to the scurrilous promise of its title – but it also unfolds a mystery that is as profound as the human heart, while exposing our need for larger-than-life stories that transcend the drabness of everyday reality.

Reviewed on: 10 Oct 2010
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A documentary about a former beauty queen alleged to have raped a Mormon missionary with whom she was infatuated.
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Director: Errol Morris

Writer: Errol Morris

Starring: Joyce McKinney, Jackson Shaw, Peter Tory, Troy Williams, Kent Gavin, Dr Hong

Year: 2010

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: US


London 2010

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