I hate it when movies kill themselves. It’s a crime that should be contested in courts of law. Here we have a movie with a sound premise, based on fact, spearheaded by two comedic actors doing a sharp turn round the bend of drama, and it gives up just before the end. I was starting to like the journalist and the killer, but by some strange mystical power they had gone from leaders in a tense story to a couple of dogs chasing tails that aren’t there.
Jonah Hill plays Michael Finkel, a writer for The New York Times who bungles a sensitive story about corruption in Africa, is fired, and has to settle back home in Montana with his wife, Jill (Felicity Jones). He tries to find work but no one will take him; his credibility has been compromised.
One day he receives a call from a journalist in Oregon (Ethan Suplee), who informs him of a suspected killer who might be of some interest. Why? Because when the suspect was caught, he said his name was Mike Finkel. Michael sees this as a chance for rebirth and flies immediately for Oregon, eager for a story.
The suspect is Christian Longo (James Franco), a tall, slender man, well-mannered, intelligent, calm. Almost too calm. Mike gets the feeling he’s hiding something, or covering for someone, but the rule for serial killers applies: If they’re too composed in the face of trial, conviction and death, they’re too composed to be innocent.
Christian draws Mike like a magnet. Why did this man use my name? Did he really kill his three children and wife by tossing their bodies off a bridge? All signs point to him; why is he not more shaken up? Christian swears blind that he loves his family more than anything, but when their bodies have been floating towards the Pacific for days, and Christian is apprehended in a hotel room in Mexico (with a woman in his bed), nothing will ever sound quite convincing enough.
This isn’t the point for Mike, who’s more obsessed with feeding Christian hope in order to attain exclusive information that he is confident will sell as a book. He organises regular visits. He conducts surreptitious mind games. He teaches Christian how to write with confidence. He grows connected; he sympathises. Ultimately, he hopes for Christian’s innocence and bravely sits in during his trial, which occupies the last third of the film. This dire relationship between Mike and Christian echoes the drama that unfolded between Truman Capote and his foil, Perry Smith.
All this is very good. We catch glimpses of recognition and remorse on Franco’s face, but for the most part he is wonderful at maintaining a straight gaze. Mike can’t determine if Christian is for real or simply pulling his leg, and to Franco’s credit, neither can we. But what does True Story have to say about this? What’s its stance on Christian’s implacability? The movie is directed by first-timer Rupert Goold, who shows confidence with his camera angles and compositions, and certainly knows how to draw out effective performances from the dark, troubled centres of his actors — a skill he no doubt acquired from years of directing stage plays. The plot, though, is lacking. It’s lacking an opinion on this eerie man, on the strange situation Michael now finds himself in. Perhaps if the movie had paid less attention to these two men as a partnership, and more to them as individuals, we might have gotten a sense of who they really are, and were in the context of history. Because as it is now, I don’t much care for either of them.
Best Moment | The first third of the film, which is pitched at a stunning level of suspense.
Worst Moment | The last third of the film, which fatally confuses itself.