Since his breakthrough feature, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, every one of Errol Morris’ features has essentially been about searching for the truth. It’s been a wide-ranging exploration, one that’s been equally fruitful delving into the mysteries of the universe and displacing common beliefs about Vietnam. With Tabloid, Morris continues probing into this theme, but here he’s found a case in which everyone is lying and the truth itself may may unobtainable—which is likely why its story fascinated him so much.
Compared with his last two films, Tabloid can seem like a bit of a lightweight. It sets out to explain what exactly happened when Joyce McKinney allegedly kidnapped and raped a Mormon man, a series of events popularly known as the “Mormon sex in chains case.” Popular understandings of the story usually came from British tabloids known for sensationalizing or outright lying, so Morris speaks with McKinney herself and everyone else he can find involved with the story. The only problem is that McKinney seems to be, if anything, an even worse liar than the tabloids, and while her compulsive lying tells a fascinating story, her diatribe has to be taken with an ocean’s worth of salt.
As usual, Morris is largely hands off and allows his interviewees to explain and condemn themselves. Its style is more bombastic than anything he’s done since Fast, Cheap & Out of Control but it’s just as well-orchestrated as the rest of his pictures. Tabloid isn’t interested in doing anything revolutionary with the genre, or even Morris’ own style, but rather focuses on exploring the inextricable link between stories and storytellers. When one tabloid is portraying McKinney as a saint and the other as a prostitute, Morris’ intelligent-as-always solution is to find out what’s in it for each of them.
It’s undeniable that the stakes for Tabloid are the lowest Morris has had for a film in three decades (not including his unfortunately short-lived TV series First Person), but this also means that the mischievous comedian from his early films has returned. It hasn’t been entirely missing from his mature works, but the deep seriousness of their subjects meant little time could be spent exploring character foibles. Here that trickster is in full force, resulting in Morris’ most flat-out enjoyable picture. But he leaves plenty of room for serious consideration about what it means to live in a world where the tabloid version of the truth is often all we have.