Errol Morris has described his new film Tabloid as a love story – his first since his feature debut Gates of Heaven – and I guess it is a love story, in a way, but one that's quite unlike any other. It's a film about the crazy extremes that people will go to for love, the dark roads it takes people down and the blinkered denial that accompanies someone utterly devoted to another. Morris' protagonist is Joyce McKinney, a dream subject for this filmmaker; he just sits her down in front of his camera and listens as she talks, talks, talks, peeling back layers on a story that gets madder by the minute. It's no accident that the film is called Tabloid; Morris shares a tabloid reporter's gift for sniffing out a good story and squeezing every drop of entertainment from it.
If you don't know who Joyce McKinney is or what incident earned her such notoriety, Morris' lively film wastes little time in getting us up to speed. McKinney was a one-time Miss Wyoming who fell in love in the late 70's with a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson. He fell just as hard for her, they began planning their life together and then – fearing the effect this sexy blonde was having on one of their flock – the Church suddenly spirited him away. At least, that's Joyce's version of events, but Tabloid is partly a film about the slippery nature of the truth and with nobody available to put across Kirk's side of the tale, Joyce's account is all we have to go on. Dismayed by the loss of her one true love, Joyce gathered together all of her money, a faithful collaborator (who was clearly besotted with her – another example of love making people do crazy things) and a pilot to follow Kirk to Devon, where he was now living. That's where the story started to get really interesting.
The tale of Joyce McKinney and Kirk Anderson later became known as "The Case of the Manacled Mormon." It had all the ingredients for a tabloid sensation – sex, crime, religion – and Morris gets plenty of mileage out of the salacious details and surprising twists the story consisted of. Joyce defiantly claims that she didn't kidnap Kirk at gunpoint, take him to a remote cottage and chain him to a bed before having sex against his will. "How can a woman rape a man?" a bemused Joyce asks, "That would be like pushing a marshmallow into a parking meter." Joyce is a fabulous, fascinating character; bubbly, verbose and completely unselfconscious. There is no equivocation in her rendition of her story – everything happened like this, and everyone else is a liar – and her apparent sincerity, or delusion, is oddly persuasive.
But the most telling line in Tabloid is spoken by Daily Express reporter Peter Tory, who says that McKinney has her side of the story and the tabloids have theirs and "somewhere in between lies the truth." Morris doesn't come down on either side of the argument; he allows each participant to share his or her own subjective reality and lets us decide who to believe. Tory (who is amusingly enamoured with the word "spread-eagled") and Mirror photographer Kent Gavin are great value as interviewees, recalling the lengths that the two warring papers went to as battle for control of the story escalated. Joyce's seedy past was exposed, with one paper depicting her as a wronged angel and the other as a whore, and both upped the ante until the story lost momentum and Joyce was, for a while, forgotten (the bizarre twist that later took her back into the public eye almost takes Tabloid into science-fiction territory).
The point isn't laboured by Morris, but it's impossible to watch Tabloid without wondering how the McKinney story would play today in a media-saturated society that is more obsessed with trashy tales than ever before. Tabloid has been described as Morris' lightest and most playful film for some time, but at its core – as with most of these titillating tales – there's an abiding sense of sadness, with portrait of a woman who misguidedly gave up everything for a futile love and was left alone long after the reporters and photographers moved on. The most vivid and haunting moments in Tabloid are found in the archive footage of a young, beautiful, hopeful Joyce reading extracts from her unfinished fairytale romance. And the title of this incomplete tome? A Very Special Love Story, naturally.