Kidnapping, rape, guns and handcuffs, The Joy of Sex, blue silk pajamas: the new Errol Morris documentary has it all. Based on the notorious Case of the Manacled Mormon, Tabloid is a delightful film. For fully half the movie you don’t know what to believe or what not to believe. This much is clear: Joyce McKinney, former Miss Wyoming, doctoral candidate at BYU with an IQ of 168, fell in love with a Mormon, and she fell hard.
Kirk Anderson was not a particularly handsome man. In the late 1970s when these outrageous things happened, he was big, bulky, he wore specs, and his hair resembled that of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Eight years younger than Joyce, he was inexperienced in the ways of the world, shy, and by some accounts, flabby. But to petite Joyce McKinney, he was heaven. Her love for him was unquenchable, obsessive, not to be denied.
The film opens with footage of a young Joyce McKinney strolling through a garden, reading from her unfinished memoir, “A Very Special Love Story.” Segue to a middle-aged Joyce being interviewed by Errol Morris about the sex and bondage scandal that swept across two continents. Thirty years have gone by, and she’s still pretty, still in love with Kirk, and utterly convinced she did nothing wrong. She trips through the story, laughing at her jokes, tearful at times, but always charismatic, a woman secure in the knowledge that love is the most important thing in life, and the motivation for everything she did. If this is a theatrical performance, as some suggest, bring it on. She’s a delight to behold.
Morris keeps the camera trained on Joyce, breaking away for occasional clips from old TV shows, commentary from various friends and accomplices, and psychological insights offered by the blue-eyed, ex-Mormon, Troy Williams. It’s Troy who provides balance between what the viewer increasingly wonders is fantasy, and the inner struggles Kirk must have felt.
The film is less an examination of tabloid journalism than a view of a woman obsessed with love, determined to free her delicious Kirk from the clutches of the “cult” that has spirited him off to England. Joyce hires a plane and pilot to take her to there. In her suitcase are the accouterments she’ll need to pull this off. Only later do we learn the gun is plastic, the handcuffs are lined with mink, and The Joy of Sex offers advice on how to counter the religious brainwashing to which poor Kirk has been subjected.
Working with accomplice Keith May, Joyce abducts her Mormon boyfriend from the steps of the LDS meetinghouse and takes him to a remote cottage in Devon. Joyce and Kirk spend three days there, days filled with sex, comfort food, and gentle bondage. Her plan is to keep him there until she’s pregnant. She wants nothing more than to marry him and have his babies.
Here the story gets a little foggy. Did Kirk escape and run back to the safety of his Mormon friends? Or did the Mormons somehow lure him away from Joyce and convince him to say terrible things about what Joyce had done. Troy Williams offers his view: Kirk loved the sex, but he was overcome with guilt. Back in the safety of the Mormon enclave, he confessed his sins and repented of them. Loudly proclaiming her innocence, Joyce is arrested. Mail, delivered to her jail cell, contains numerous offers from men wanting to be abducted, tied spread-eagled to a bed, massaged with her signature cinnamon oil.
Released on bail, Joyce and her accomplice flee to Canada, passing through customs disguised as deaf-mutes. Meanwhile, tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic are off to the races, alleging that before her sojourn in England Joyce was a high-priced prostitute who specialized in sadomasochistic nude photos. It’s a charge Joyce vehemently denies.
Kirk opts to go back to the safe and familiar Mormon way of life. He marries the ample wife the Mormon elders have chosen for him, fathers children, and presumably dreams of the day when he will be lord and master of his own planet. (Does this vision of the afterlife sound like something akin to the Islamist belief in 72 virgins waiting in heaven?)
At the end of the movie Joyce is alone on her parents’ farm in Virginia, agoraphobic, still working on her memoir. The notes and clippings she’s collected over the years have been stolen, but she soldiers on, surrounded by the five pit bulls cloned by a South Korean veterinarian from her beloved Booger’s ear tissue.
Kirk chose not to participate in the making of the documentary, so we have no way of knowing what he might have said all these years later. The three days in the Devon bungalow, the ropes and chains, the ripping off of his Temple garments (a kind of union suit worn by Mormon elders that protect them from temptation and evil), the sex, the comfort food, the massages – we can only imagine what pleasure he may have felt, and later, the depths of his guilt. On the subject of those unbleached cotton undergarments, the ones he put on the day of his endowment ceremony, Joyce is equally mum. All she’ll say is that she ripped them from his body and threw them in the fire.
But this I wonder: will Kirk Anderson ever catch a whiff of cinnamon without thinking of Joyce? When that bounteous Mormon wife sprinkles cinnamon on her bread pudding, or she stirs cinnamon into her oatmeal cookie dough, or she makes cinnamon toast for the children, and the cinnamon smell wafts through the kitchen, will he remember Joyce? How could he not?
Morris has directed other documentaries, including Standard Operating Procedure, Gates of Heaven, and The Thin Blue Line. He won an Academy Award in 2003 for his film, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.
Tabloid may be his best yet.