Some stories are too good to be true. The premise of True Story is almost too neat, too convenient, to be true, but it is.
Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is a New York Times investigative journalist at the height of his career, when he is caught fabricating a story. All of the pieces are true, but rather than present them as they organically existed Finkel took bits from several related stories and made a patchwork of them into one fictionalized bundle. When the Times realized his lack of trustworthiness he was publicly fired and retreated home to Montana in disgrace. Feeling as though his career is over, he got a tip pointing him to a story that he was uncomfortably close to: the fleeing killer Christian Longo (James Franco) had been caught in Mexico and has assumed Finkel’s identity while on the run. The defrocked writer’s interest is piqued and he sets out to get to know the man who killed his whole family and took up his identity.
The bulk of the film’s time is dedicated to jailhouse meetings between Finkel and Longo. Hill and Franco have a natural chemistry, and both handle the delicate balance of this relationship well. We have seen these two actors pair together in comedic roles (This Is The End) and it was fulfilling to see them both rise to the dramatic levels that each of their characters demanded. These scenes between the two men could have been shot as psychological cat and mouse games, or as very tense exchanges, but instead the tone is not heavy. These men each find the other a fascinating character and want to both learn something from the other, but also are clearly using them for their own benefit. We know that Finkel has relatively loose morals when it comes to truthfulness. Longo, accused of murdering his wife and three children and running to Mexico while using an assumed name and identity, is himself a complicated and not necessarily a trustworthy character. Even with these reprehensible character traits, both men are smart and quick, and both appreciate the gravity of their meetings.
Though overall the film is entertaining and absorbing, leaving the theater I was struck by the fact that I wanted more. I wanted to see more of the banter between Finkel and Longo. I wanted more of a strained relationship between Finkel and Jill (more on her below). I wanted to see Longo use and manipulate Finkel even more than we had already seen. It was as if the complex true story of True Story had been boiled down to its essential elements, and then expanded back to fill 104 minutes, with nothing taking the place of the eliminated material. By watching the chemistry between Finkel and Longo develop on screen I wanted to believe that the filmmaker could have shown the audience further depth to their relationship, but it ultimately stopped short of the satisfaction.
The film’s lack of awareness, or awareness but denial, of what the audience is hoping for in a film based on such a fascinating real story is perhaps a symptom of greater issues within the film’s structure and presentation. As mentioned briefly Jill (Felicity Jones) is in the film as Finkel’s girlfriend or wife, but her character is completely unnecessary. She is perfectly wonderful in the role, but Jill never puts any motivation into the plot or deepens either of the male lead characters. She does have one powerful monologue about what a monster Longo truly is, and though it was a welcome voice of reason in the film, that scene could have been clipped out and it would have made no difference. She merely exists there to occasionally inspect Finkel’s notebooks, but nothing more.
True Story is an engrossing film about a terrible crime intersecting with a tiny tidbit of happenstance. The film will ultimately leave viewers wanting more, but it will not bore or frustrate them. Just do not go into the theater expecting to leave with a sense of cinematic closure.
Director: Rupert Goold
Film Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: April 17, 2015
Distributor: Fox Searchlight