Tabloid stops the presses for compelling 1970s scandal

A magnetic Southern belle becomes the center of international gossip in Errol Morris's documentary

In the late '70s, headlines such as "The Case of the Manacled Mormon!" described the kinky episode at the center of Errol Morris' new documentary Tabloid. But the Oscar-winning director doesn't need blaring hyperbole to keep his audience's attention for a tale with such a lurid plot and colorful personalities. Tabloid arrives in theaters with perfect timing for a film about journalistic excess, just as Rupert Murdoch's media empire implodes in England. At times, Tabloid's juicy details of transatlantic Mormon sexcapades distract Morris from the bigger picture.

Morris finds a fascinatingly flawed protagonist in Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen with a rich South Carolina accent and an arrestingly strange personal story. According to McKinney, while in Utah she became engaged to young Mormon Kirk Anderson, but the Church sent him to London to separate them. She tracked him down and took him on a sex-filled weekend in rural England, but Scotland Yard arrested her for kidnapping upon her return to London.

Allegations of bondage and brainwashing turned the McKinney case into an English obsession in 1977. As Morris' star witness, McKinney may not always be persuasive, but she remains a magnetic Southern belle with a gift of gab. Asked if a woman could rape a man, she replies, "I think that would be like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter." Her lifelong obsession with Anderson remains a mystery, but it's easy to see how, in her prime, she could wrap men around her little finger.

Anderson refused to be interviewed for the film, so the narrative tilts in McKinney's favor, although Tabloid includes the perspective of an ex-Mormon who lived in England and persuasively speculates about Anderson's thought-process. Morris' lively, fluid editing includes kitschy old commercials and cheap animation about Mormon religious doctrine. Just when you think the story couldn't get any stranger, Morris presents a coda set three decades later that involves a South Korean cloning expert and could support a whole other documentary.

Murdoch's now-shuttered and disgraced News of the World doesn't go mentioned in Tabloid, but the film still conveys the cutthroat, gossip-drunk competition between publications. A pair of aging Fleet Street journalists exudes cheerful contempt for the individuals they write about, without apparent regard for the consequences. Nevertheless, Morris doesn't delve into issues like journalistic ethics, reader complicity or the modern tabloid mentality of the 24/7 news cycle, so Tabloid lacks the thought-provoking, essay-like qualities of his recent films The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedures.

Instead, Tabloid suggests that Morris wanted to take a vacation from grim subject matter and sink his teeth into a sensationalistic tale with a he-said-she-said mystery and a magnetic cast of characters. Tabloid proves more superficial than it could've been, but it's as irresistible as any supermarket scandal sheet.