Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming World, was arrested in England in the mid-1970s for the kidnap, confinement and rape of a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson. Ravenous British tabloids seized upon the mix of religion, true crime and kinky sex and spun it into months of breathless coverage that came to be known as “The Case of the Manacled Mormon.” McKinney meanwhile portrays herself as a virginal small town girl who fell in mutual love with a nice young Mormon boy. When his family balked and he disappeared to go on mission, she tracked him to England where she claims she rescued him from a Mormon cult. The truth, which likely lies somewhere in the gray area between the two extreme versions of the story, turns out to be not all that interesting despite the huffing and puffing of the scandal sheets.
Most of the story unfolds in McKinney’s own words. An extended interview with her is interspersed with archival material, an interview with one of her accomplices and interviews with a couple of the scumbag tabloid reporters who pursued the story at the time. Her alleged abductee refused to participate so McKinney herself is the real focus. For her part, she’s kind of a sad character. She’s eccentric for sure and possibly a bit delusional, but once the contours of her case are fully laid out you start to realize there’s nothing really to it and the story starts to run out of gas.
Errol Morris’ unobtrusive, observational documentary style works best when he gets hold of a compelling subject. Whether he’s documenting the people behind the pet cemeteries in Gates of Heaven, the search for truth in The Thin Blue Line or an interview with one of the key controversial figures during one of the darkest times in US history in The Fog of War, Morris always gets to the core of his immediate subject while also finding deeper, more general truths about human nature. In this case, the lurid, tabloid-ready tale sounds promising on paper and it would probably make for an entertaining dark romantic comedy, but as documentary fodder it’s mostly an unilluminating disappointment. McKinney is amusing, but not ultimately very interesting. Her story doesn’t say much about sex or love or religion or wider human behavior nor does Morris’ film have much to offer about the form of journalism that lends the documentary its title.
In the end, Tabloid entertains fitfully, but never rises above the sensationalism of its tacky subject.
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