True Story wants very much to understand the evil that men do, but it’s too superficial to dig deep enough into its subject. The film is based on an actual case, that of convicted murderer Christian Longo. Longo was given the death penalty for the 2001 murders of his wife and three young children. The film chronicles the strange relationship that develops between Longo (played by James Franco) and a disgraced ex-New York Times reporter named Mike Finkel (played by Jonah Hill). Finkel has just been let go from his post at the Times because he fabricated part of a story he wrote about the African slave trade. After returning to his home in Montana and his wife (Felicity Jones), who works in the library of a university, Finkel discovers that Longo used his name whilst a fugitive from justice. Intrigued, Finkel reaches out to Longo in prison. And here’s where the movie loses me. When Finkel first encounters Longo, he tells the suspected murderer that he can relate to Longo because “he’s been through a trial of his own,” and he wanted to know “what it was like to be me.” Longo is obviously thrilled to be the subject of a vulnerable reporter’s curiosity—not to mention Finkel’s ticket to career salvation. And Finkel becomes enamored of Longo in very creepy and incredulous ways.
I haven’t read Finkel’s book about his relationship with Longo; nor am I familiar with the details of the actual murder case and subsequent trial. But the film documents an exchange that is hard to take. The writers—David Kajganich and Rupert Goold (Gold also directed)—are trying to explore the complex range of emotions at play here: On the one hand, Finkel has been publicly humiliated for falsifying information; his reputation is marred and he desperately needs a good story to revive his career; this makes Finkel vulnerable to the manipulations of a sociopath (assuming Longo is actually guilty). Meanwhile, there is the question of Longo’s guilt. Did he really do the unthinkable? Or is he just the perfect wrongfully accused man, nailed to the wall by circumstantial evidence and motive? Finkel stands to gain here too: He might be the one person to believe the innocent man, thus preventing another senseless death if Longo is acquitted of the five murders he is accused of committing.
These are fascinating ideas, but the movie doesn’t seem equipped to handle them with any finesse or curiosity. The relationship between Longo and Finkel is clumsily established with a montage sequence. I wish there had been scenes of Finkel spotting Longo while he did push-ups, set to some amped-up 80s power song by the likes of Men at Work or Duran Duran. The movie might have worked better as a spoof of crime dramas than the real thing. But that may also be the fact that we’re seeing two actors who have been associated with comedy for so long now trying to break out of that mold and do something different.
I won’t dispute their acting skills. Both Franco and Hill are strong performers. But there’s nothing else underneath those performances. The film doesn’t really event capture the tingling mysteriousness that pervades strong examples of this genre. We’re never immersed in the film the way that we should be. And moments of bad dialogue and seemingly odd, incredulous character choices only mar an already muddled film.