The release of “True Story” feels especially well-timed due to how it grapples with the kinds of issues that were worked over last fall in the form of the Serial podcast and Rolling Stone magazine’s UVA debacle: namely, questions of who to believe, what constitutes the truth, and how to present the facts of a horrifying situation. These ideas drive “True Story,” and the result is a chilling film that, despite its craft and best efforts, still struggles to overcome its star power. While that is what gets films like this made, in the case of a true crime tale such as this, it’s a distraction.
“True Story” is a two-hander between Jonah Hill and James Franco, both in vastly different modes than any of their previous times sharing the screen. Hill is Mike Finkel, an aggressive and talented New York Times reporter whose name is disgraced when allegations surface that he manipulated facts in a damning article about African child slavery. Fired in shame, he retreats to Oregon, where his (inexplicable) girlfriend, Jill (Felicity Jones), works as a university archivist. While his pitches are universally rejected, he’s contacted by a local reporter who informs him that a man accused of murdering his family, Christian Longo (Franco), identified himself as “Mike Finkel, New York Times,” when apprehended in Mexico.
Finkel is intrigued by the attention (and the possible scoop), and strikes up a jailhouse friendship with Longo, swapping writing lessons for questions about the ghastly crime. He is drawn in further and further, enticed by Longo’s fawning, and the prospect of massive book sales, becoming close with a man who is accused of a truly heinous crime, as he is reminded to no avail by Jill and the prosecutors who want access to his notes and correspondence.
The film is exceptionally well-made, shot in a chilly style that utilizes intriguing close ups between the two men, evoking the coldness both of a winter in the Pacific Northwest and of a truly psychopathic crime. There is nothing warm about the style, yet it allows for moments of simmering tension, broken by a few emotional explosions that shatter its well-composed surface.
Franco is his dead-eyed best as Longo, and yet, it still feels like watching James Franco Act with a capital A. He never disappears into the role, and one almost wishes that someone else had been cast. Jonah Hill sells his performance much more effectively as the obsessive, egotistical writer, and he acts circles around Franco. Felicity Jones is an MVP as usual, elevating the material in what is sadly a limited role, despite one scene in which she single-handedly raises every hair on your body.
Ultimately, “True Story” is hampered by several claims it just can’t back up. There’s no real effort made to prove Finkel’s talents as a writer, or his loving relationship with Jill, or Longo’s role as a devoted father (though that is probably just one of his deceptions). While much hay is made of these as given facts, no effort is made to prove them on screen.
The truly interesting thing about “True Story” is the gradual shift and Finkel’s realization that he can’t just write truth into existence, despite his talent and hard work. The truth will always be evasive, slippery, uncanny. Co-writer/director Rupert Goold (in his feature film debut) captures these moments of stark realization and horror well, and to watch someone who crafts stories be run over by the truth, and actually know it, is a compelling thing to watch. Hill shines in this role, and his dynamic with Franco works well. However, and it may be no fault of Franco’s, it’s simply too difficult to get away from and forget his persona. Still, “True Story” is a tightly made slice of true crime that treads the line between fact and fiction that has so bedeviled storytellers, and asserts that perhaps reality lies somewhere outside of that, and is still only what you make of it. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.