True Story is a pallid case study that seems likely to fade away before too long

True Story

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

The truth is a funny thing. While facts may be unyielding — a child’s body submerged in a suitcase with a teddy bear; a flood of brackish water — our relationship to them is often more elastic.

Case in point: reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), dismissed from his job at the New York Times for fabrication, and Christian Longo (James Franco), a man accused of murdering his wife and children. The former is sequestered at his log cabin house in Bozeman, Montana, with his wife Jill (Felicity Jones). The latter is arrested in Mexico while using Finkel’s name, bringing him to the disgraced journalist’s attention.

True Story — the film debut of British theater director Rupert Goold — revolves around their meetings in prison, an inherently theatrical conceit. Finkel gets to hear Longo’s story and Longo gets writing lessons; a quid pro quo that Truman Capote would be proud of. Finkel views Longo as a twisted reflection of himself, as a man who’s made mistakes; even their penmanship is the same!

There’s the vague sense both Finkel and Longo are seeking atonement — the first time we see Longo he’s in church — but Finkel also flatters himself that he’s using Longo: after all, he needs a comeback, “half true crime, half mea culpa”. As you might expect things are not quite as they seem.

Hill is warily self-reflective as Finkel, who comes across as a bit of a putz — pasty, bespectacled, and unblinking, he thinks he’s being nominated for a Pulitzer as he’s going to get fired. Franco, meanwhile, is wistful, dour, and seemingly half asleep, but not uncharismatic for it.

Their second film together after apocalyptic comedy This Is The End, and only Hill’s third dramatic role, neither is particularly well-served by David Kajganich’s script, which reduces both men to their parallels; Longo, the accused, and Finkel, the unemployable.

Goold’s direction feels like a more lightweight Bennett Miller — a shot of a country road disappearing into mist and snow immediately brings to mind Foxcatcher — but his meditative slow pans and tracks lack the same power. The whole film seems to be picked out in white and orange, from Finkel’s rusted letterbox to Longo’s jumpsuit, but the color doesn’t punctuate as it should.

Marco Beltrami’s ghostly score underscores appropriately and Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is clear and bright, but it’s strange that, given the the book it’s based on, True Story tries to leave too much unspoken

Though faintly enthralling in its negotiation with the truth, the film never rises above the level of a competent TV drama. Only Jones’ reluctant Jill possesses real moral clarity. Given a passionate monologue, she questions whether Longo’s story deserves to be told in any form. It’s a good point and one that would seem to refute the whole standing for which the film’s existence.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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