James Franco and Jonah Hill know each other personally, just as their respective roles, journalist Michael Finkel and convicted murderer Christian Longo, would like to think they do. Finkel was sought by Longo, who hid under Finkel’s name as bait. Sacked by the New York Times for fudging the facts in a cover story, Finkel endures banishment in Montana while Longo flees from Oregon to Mexico City. Once Longo’s family is discovered dead, the police find Longo (under Finkel’s name) with curious ease, and once the real Finkel is alerted, he can’t pull away. After a dry spell, he has the story of his life. Of course, Longo isn’t going to give it to him that easily. A game of quid pro quo begins; Finkel will teach Longo to write, Longo will provide information. When Longo writes his entire confession as a book comparable to the notebooks of Se7en’s John Doe, Finkel becomes obsessed (as these newspaper movies often go), while the snake-like Longo’s game of manipulation grows stronger. But instead of dwelling on obsessive journalism, True Story’s primary concern is reminding the audience about how it is, foremost, a study of the truth’s instability.
At first, True Story doesn’t appear to be a film comparable to Shakespeare. Goold’s only preceding film credits are filmed stage productions of Macbeth and Richard II, providing the only comparable material (aside from Michael Finkel’s memoir). I don’t say this begrudgingly; it’s been a while since we’ve had a director make such a jump from the Bard. As a result,True Story is not entirely a stretch for Goold; the film is a story of trial and punishment rife with egomania, self-delusion, scandal, and murder. It also features mistaken identity, which is more common in Shakespeare’s comedies. It’s a device meant for farcical complications, with the comfort that all’s well that ends well. In True Story, the initial adoption of another’s identity spells lethal in many ways.
Plus, Shakespeare’s actors would jump from comedy to tragedy and back again. Though they’ve worked together before (last seen dodging demon dick), the pairing of Franco and Hill has never been in such controlled, intense conditions. Working from their bromantic chemistry, they expand the lengths of their dramatic careers, playing off aspects that have made previous roles memorable. As Finkel, Hill recalls his subtle, strategic big-brain in Moneyball , while Franco’s experience as a sly looker/manipulator holds up.
Truth is crucial to good journalism, and writing at large. So is avoiding cliches. In the spotty quest for tension and concentration on the performances (perhaps Goold’s symptom of jumping from stage to screen), unpolished dialogue — written by David Kajgavich — slips through (“My reputation is on the line,” etc.), and the groan-inducing ending is too familiar. Goold is a first-time director, but only in the filmic sense; he’s spent nearly two decades directing for the stage, and his debut shows strong visual chops. Because there are moments that sharply smack of Bennett Miller (those Montana winters just make life seem so much bleaker), Goold hasn’t nailed his own trademarks yet, but his handle on actors grants him promise. That said, the needfully slow pace employed for the scenes between Franco and Hill engulfs the rest of the film, and the supporting cast of Felicity Jones and Gretchen Mol with it, leaving a fascinating true-crime tale with an unfair treatment.