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Beauty queens, Mormons, and sex slaves: Tabloid's got 'em all

Bat Boy's got nothing on Joyce McKinney. In Tabloid, veteran documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line) tests the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction. And no matter which version of the truth you believe, every fiber of the yarn Morris weaves is weird enough for a circus sideshow. But don't expect a Law & Order denouement. For Morris, the questions are just as important as the answers — and you're going to have questions.

At its heart, Tabloid tells the story of southern pageant girl Joyce McKinney and her quest for fairy-tale love. Take into account that McKinney has an almost off-the-chart IQ (168) as well as a penchant for the theatrical, and you've quickly got an unbelievable story that crosses the Atlantic with fake guns and chloroform, disguises and bondage, religion, sex, and movie stars.

After moving to Salt Lake City in the '70s, McKinney met a young Mormon named Kirk Anderson. But that's about the only detail we know for sure. McKinney claims that she and Kirk fell in love, but that he disappeared one day. After hiring a private investigator, she learned he was in England and did the only thing she knew how to do: She flew to the U.K. to rescue him from the "cult" that had abducted him.

Ask almost anyone else, and the story is quite different. Anderson's disappearance, say his Mormon companions, was easily explained by a church tradition that sends young men on a mission that signals their entrance into adulthood. It was McKinney, they say, who abducted Anderson and made him her sex slave for three days before he was finally able to confirm his kidnapping to authorities. McKinney was arrested and jailed in England until she jumped bail and hightailed it back to the States, where she got off scot-free. British tabloids weren't so kind.

Morris tells McKinney's story with humor and heart, and his interjections are some of the funniest moments in the movie. McKinney is the primary person Morris interviews here, but the cast is rounded out by accomplices, Mormon experts, and snarky British reporters. Morris forgoes his typical reenactments in Tabloid, relying instead on flashing headlines, old cartoons, and original newsprint animations. But the director's real gift lies in the fact that, within some genuinely gripping smut, he's buried serious questions about truth and justice and desire. Tabloid proves once again that Morris is a master at collecting fragments and piecing them together into a story that's not only coherent, but provocative.

More than 30 years after the "manacled Mormon" debacle that made McKinney another vaguely unwilling celebrity, she's still working on a memoir she started at the height of the ordeal. Morris smartly bookends Tabloid with footage of a young McKinney reading her story from behind feathered blonde locks. Titled A Very Special Love Story, McKinney's fairy tale is steeped in all the delusion that makes Tabloid one of a kind. Very special indeed.

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