True Story is, oddly enough, based on a true story – Christian Longo murdered his family and disappeared. When he was captured, in Mexico, he was posing as a journalist named Mike Finkel. Mike Finkel was a New York Times reporter who was fired for fabricating the subject of an important story – and became the only person Longo would talk to.
Finkel’s book, True Story, detailed those conversations and was a bestseller. The film adapted from the book is intriguing, occasionally compelling but creates a distance between itself and its audience that it almost but not quite earns back.
We meet Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) as he interviews a young man for a story he’s writing on the African slave trade. When his story appears in the New York Times, it is discovered that he created a composite character and he loses his job.
When we meet Christian Longo (James Franco), he’s attempting to light an electric candle at a church in Mexico. He gets help from an attractive German girl and spends the night with her. He tells her he’s a journalist named Mike Finkel. The next day, he’s captured.
We learn he’s accused of killing his wife and three children.
Though he’s been unable to find another job, Mike still has a few friends in the business and one of them alerts him to Longo’s use of his name as an alias and, intrigued, he visits him.
The rest of the film is built around their conversations, Longo’s trial and brief moments from Mike’s life with his girlfriend, Jill (Felicity Jones). The conversations turn into something unexpected as Mike thinks they will help prove Longo’s innocence.
I expect that Jonah Hill was cast as Mike Finkel in hopes that his everyman presence would help compensate for Mike’s being discredited in the film’s opening moments – and that he would work as a sympathetic balance to James Franco’s mesmerizing turn as the charming, cunning Longo.
When his visits with Longo – and Longo’s ploy during his trial – convince Mike that he’s not innocent, he tries to use what he’s learned as evidence against Longo, but the detective he approaches, Gary Ganley, (Person of Interest’s Robert John Burke) tells him that he’d make a poor witness because he’s been shown to be a liar.
Between the focused Finkel/Longo conversations and the trail, True Story is pretty much all talk, but because the cast does that really well, it works extremely well. Between what Mike learns from Longo – and the way that Longo uses what he learns from Mike – there’s a certain snake/prey feel to the proceedings that is effectively very creepy.
While it remains difficult to really sympathize with Mike because of his own transgression – creating enough of a disconnect with an audience, Franco’s Longo almost draws us back in enough to make True Story brilliant. But not quite.
True Story’s peripheral characters help, a bit, too. Jones is remarkably good as Mike’s slightly mousy girlfriend who is supportive and sweet until the moment she goes mama bear in a standout scene. Burke, playing a good cop here, makes Ganley’s distaste for Mike – even before Mike tries to help – clear.
A nice touch is the way that – to balance every scene with Longo being indoors – we get occasional shots of the Montana area where Mike lives with Jill. Even the stark chill of a Montana winter isn’t as cold as Longo’s eyes. Franco makes Longo the distillation of pure evil.
Despite the disconnect that director Rupert Goold never quite overcomes, True Story is a compelling story – even from that bit of distance. It slowly, deliberately crawls into a portion of the lizard brain and provides chills that make it a true psychological horror story with virtually no blood to speak off.
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