True Story is based on the memoir of a writer that got fired for being dishonest in a news story. It chronicles his relationship with a man accused of killing his wife and children. The prisoner claims he is innocent, sort of, while acknowledging there are facts he has not revealed. So we watch the adaptation of the book and wonder, where does the truth lie?
Real-life buddies Jonah Hill and James Franco star in this curious drama. Felicity Jones costars, but she gets next to nothing to do save for a bit of business late in the movie that feels like it was added for her benefit.
Michael Finkel (Hill) wrote an expose for The New York Times on allegations of child slavery in the African chocolate trade, but he got busted, and fired, for creating a composite character in his report. He is told, "You have a future, Mike. It's just not here."
Finkel retreats to his home in Montana where his wife, Jill (Jones), provides emotional support as he licks his wounds and tries, without success, to find work elsewhere in his field. His life gets even weirder when a reporter (Ethan Supplee — good to see him) informs him that an Oregon fugitive, Christian Longo (Franco), has been using the name Mike Finkel. Convinced he has a unique story that will sell, Finkel heads off to meet with Longo, and the movie lands in its groove.
The whole identity theft thing turns out to be an icebreaker. Longo says he's an admirer of Finkel's work and the men cut a deal. Longo will tell all to Finkel as long as Finkel delays publication until after the trial is over. And he must give writing lessons to Longo, an aspiring author. Finkel's book pitch is picked up and the in-depth interviewing begins.
The film is consistently interesting, but remains at a distance. We watch the conversations, we see Finkel's interviewing techniques and Longo's mind games, but their exchanges lack tension. Franco looks sleepy, or maybe stoned. He talks like a character with an agenda, but most of the time he looks like he's already thrown in the towel. There are moments of fire, but not nearly as many as I expected.
Hill, meanwhile, appears to be suffering from some sort of gastric affliction for much of the film. As with Longo, his character has the right words, but Hill's demeanor lacks the urgency of a man fighting for redemption while dealing with a manipulative criminal.
Watching the interview process is engaging. I wasn't swept away, though, and given the actors and the situation, I thought I would be.
British theater director Rupert Goold does a nice job of keeping a film built primarily around two guys talking from feeling stagey. The flashbacks are useful; given the setup it's important that viewers get visual reminders of what Longo is accused of doing. Marco Beltrami's score fills the production with music, but in a low-key fashion that sets a melancholy mood.
True Story is an odd bird. I expected a taut cat and mouse story, but got something sadder.