As a documentarian, Errol Morris is less a humanist than a connoisseur of “human interest,” and Tabloid, his queasily entertaining new movie, is not so much a return to form as a reminder of his ongoing fascination with the freak-show fringe of American life.

Morris revels in the grotesque saga of Joyce McKinney, the erstwhile Miss Wyoming, who, back in the heyday of Johnny Rotten, gave the British tabs another sort of bondage tale with her mad pursuit and alleged abduction of one Kirk Anderson, a young London-based missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The press dubbed it “The Case of the Manacled Mormon.” As reported in the Nov. 23, 1977, edition of the London Evening News, a magistrates' court was held rapt as “a young Mormon missionary told today how an ex–beauty queen kidnapped him and then made love to him while he was chained to a bed in a lonely cottage. Kirk Anderson, 21, said the girl, Joyce McKinney, and her friend, Keith May, tied down his arms and legs with leather straps, padlocks, chains and rope, so that he was spread-eagled.”

Kirk's account made an impression, but the press was even more taken with his alleged abductress, whose Southern drawl was nearly as exotic as her love object's religion and whose testimony proved even more lurid. The 28-year-old McKinney vigorously insisted that, rather than the rape Anderson described, their sex (which she explained in uninhibited detail) had been consensual.

Amid an escalating press war, Joyce went crazy — like a fox. Then, after 30 years of obscurity, her tabloid career had a suitably bizarre second act — again founded on an instance of mad love. The object in this case was McKinney's pet pit bull and longtime companion Booger, a dog she credits with saving her life, being smart enough to dial 911. When Booger died, McKinney decided to have him cloned five times by a Seoul-based lab.

Joyce is a fabulous creature with a surefire story. No need for the staged reenactments Morris has used in previous movies — this vivacious fruitcake is available to tell her own tale. (It's perhaps because Morris' subject is such easy, interesting fun that he also eschews the formalist precision that characterized his brilliant early work.) When it comes to interrogating her, though, Morris is no tougher than he was with Robert McNamara. As with McNamara's rationalizations, denials and bald-faced lies, McKinney's schizoid, weirdly impish pronouncements are lovingly transcribed and allowed to stand unchallenged by her interviewer. Why should he bother to call her out? How she saw something, or describes it, carries more weight now than what might actually have happened.

Thanks in part to the psychological insights provided by talking head Troy Williams, the Mormon apostate and radio host dubbed the “gay mayor of Salt Lake City,” Tabloid takes on additional topicality — the movie has points of contact with Broadway's megasmash The Book of Mormon and the current multi-Mormon Republican presidential race. The real subject, however, is Joyce's imaginative self-dramatizing — her capacity to act upon and sustain a fantasy scenario, complete with fantasy memories. “If you tell a lie long enough, you learn to believe it,” she says of the media without apparent irony.

In comparing Tabloid to Kurosawa's Rashomon, the classic example of subjective narrative and a code for unknowable truth, Morris seems to suggest that it is impossible to establish the particulars of the McKinney-Anderson affair. Such presumed unfathomability is ultimately less compelling, though, than the enigma of Joyce's self-created personality. She tells her own story here and doesn't seem delusional — but does she really, truly believe her own explanations? This is the source of the movie's fascination. Joyce's conviction is not only convincing but contagious. So, too, is her elastic sense of reality — a 90-minute immersion in her world is enough to make you question your own.

TABLOID | Written and directed by ERROL MORRIS | Sundance Selects | Landmark, Playhouse, Sunset 5, Town Center

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