Genre: Psychological Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.
Release Date: April 17th, 2015 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Rupert Goold Actors: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee, Genevieve Angelson, Gretchen Mol, Maria Dizzia, Betty Gilpin, Robert John Burke
he opening scene is quite the attention-grabber. Artistic and yet incredibly morbid, the initial seconds presage a picture that is centered on a grisly murder, yet far more focused on the analyzation of characters than the weighing of motives or the questing for clues. It’s a fitting, contrasting start, especially as the movie unfolds at a purposeful, unhurried pace, while compelling details and dawdling cinematography oust the need for typical flashes of violence or frequent, unsettling imagery.
Asthmatic New York Times journalist Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) thinks he’s headed for a Pulitzer with his tenth cover story for the prestigious paper. Instead, however, his piece about slavery and abuse on a West African cocoa plantation brings about some confusion over the identities of his interviewees (in fact, a composite of multiple accounts). The fallout includes the loss of Finkel’s job and an editor’s correction in the following issue, which marks the certain death of his journalism career. No one will hire him, as his credibility is shot.
When Finkel moves back to Montana, where his wife Jill (Felicity Jones) resides, he’s contacted by local writer Pat (Ethan Suplee), who wants to hear his take on the recent event – but not the one concerning Finkel’s dismissal. Instead, Michael learns that a man by the name of Christian Michael Longo (James Franco) was just arrested in Mexico, having eluded police after allegedly murdering his wife and three children – and that, while in the wind, he used Michael Finkel’s identity as an alias. In a supreme touch of irony, Finkel is stripped of his own name while a suspect on the lam adopts it out of admiration. Arranging for a meeting with the prisoner, Finkel comes face to face with one of the FBI’s most wanted – and is granted exclusive access to the Oregon man’s tale of normalcy, tragedy, and murder.
How sublimely curious that a writer known for telling lies penned the memoir on which “True Story” is based (“True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa”), shedding light on a killer with plenty of lies of his own. And here, in the form of a movie – a medium renowned for its ability to embellish the truth – audiences are shown a cinematic premise nearly too outrageous to believe. With its title, the film doesn’t even begin with the now-cliché line, “Based on a true story.”
With its obvious hints at “The Silence of the Lambs,” including nail-biting interviews and teeth-chattering stares in a heavily-guarded, asylum-like facility, and a brief suggestion of “Spoorloos” (or “The Vanishing”) from the potential for experimental devilry and psychological torment, “True Story” brandishes an inspiring series of back-and-forth battles of wits and wills. It scrutinizes the morality of bringing attention to those with ghastly stories that, debatably, shouldn’t be publicized; the wrong turns in life that might have influenced heinous acts (the successes and the failures); and the strategies behind betraying guilt and innocence. Just as much as it digs into the mind of a killer, it inspects the processes of the interrogator – here, a man simultaneously benefitting from the publicity and being manipulated by his detained subject.
Mind games, poetic symbolism, moving observations, and humorous notes compose an utterly mesmerizing script. There’s always something deeper and undeniably haunting lingering just beneath the surface of the words, particularly as the courtroom drama components unearth twisted, unwholesome facets of humanity. Franco and Hill further amplify this with their stunning performances, each playing roles extremely against type.
James Franco in particular, as the cornered fox with an uncanny calmness in the face of overwhelming evidence, musters some substantial moments of reflection and mental maneuvering. The casting is unexpected and decidedly entertaining in its unusualness; Felicity Jones even gets a rather powerful speech in her short supporting turn. In the end, though routinely presented as something of a mystery (despite the facts of the case being openly available) – with the camera glancing across hand movements, clothing, facial hair, and other subtleties of impressions and appearances – “True Story” exhibits an exhilarating build to a thought-provoking parting shot that questions the need for finding an audience and the ideals sacrificed to attain one, all while a movie theater audience validates the very notion.
– Mike Massie