True Story is a slick crime thriller that looks great but feels oddly distant. Much like the cold-blooded killer at its core, Rupert Goold’s film is quite the cold fish. Solid performances and striking visuals help to hide a clunky script that delivers its message with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It doesn’t amount to much, but True Story is a creepy diversion that will keep you entertained.
Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) is an investigative journalist whose passion for the truth can turn him into a liar. Whether it’s “consolidating” the facts for a New York Times article (an offense for which he was fired), or lying to himself about a subject’s motives, Finkel oscillates between recording the facts and manipulating them.
Such is the case with Christian Longo (James Franco); a man charged with brutally murdering his wife and three young children before fleeing to Mexico. Finkel’s curiosity is piqued when he learns that Longo has been using his name as an alias. In a heavy-handed swipe at the movie’s thematic premise, Finkel tells Longo, “I thought maybe you could tell me what it’s like to be me.” It’s a testament to Hill and Franco’s dramatic acting chops that they make this awkward exchange feel almost plausible. Finkel, desperate to repair his tarnished reputation, agrees to give Longo, an aspiring writer, some editorial tips in exchange for the exclusive rights to his story.
As a director, Goold’s eye is impeccable. He frames True Story through haunting visuals and blurry edges; like a distant object you can’t quite bring into focus. Flashbacks and jump cuts co-mingle with extended shots to construct a puzzle that has no edge pieces. Particularly effective is the cinematography of Masanobu Takayanagi, who evokes a dreamlike quality to visually blur the lines between fact and fiction. Longo’s recollections of his idyllic family feel like those of a man trying to convince himself that something was real; to inhabit an identity that only exists in his mind.
Goold deftly handles this visual subtext, but as a screenwriter he struggles mightily. Working from the memoir by Michael Finkel, Goold and his co-writer, David Kajganich, bring new meaning to the term ‘ham-fisted’ delivery. There is literally no verbal subtext in this script… none. Everything is right on the nose, as if pandering to an audience of 5th graders. This weakness is made more glaring by a story that’s too thin and simplistic to offer any surprises. Longo’s guilt is never in doubt to anyone but Finkel, who continues to question the insurmountable evidence. It makes Finkel look gullible and, worse still, moronic. Finkel (and the filmmakers) fails to understand that the most interesting question isn’t if Longo killed his family, but why? This miscalculation confines True Story to a superficial level and undercuts strong performances from its two lead actors.
Franco and Hill work well together, grappling in a one-dimensional game of cat and mouse. Sadly, it’s more like a game of mouse and mouse, as Finkel is too gullible to be a worthy adversary and Longo is too guarded to divulge anything juicy. This effectively kills any chance for emotional fireworks or psychological manipulation. In fact, the film’s most emotionally charged scene comes courtesy of Finkel’s girlfriend (played by Felicity Jones), who verbally undresses Franco late in the film.
Still, True Story speeds along on the shoulders of stunning visuals and strong performances. He doesn’t eat anyone’s liver with fava beans, but Franco generates enough genuine creepiness to keep you uneasy. Mostly, this is how a crime thriller is supposed to look, even if it doesn’t have a thought in its pretty little head.