Tale of fact versus fiction thrills in ‘True Story’

Jonah Hill as "Mike Finkel" in TRUE STORY.  Photos by Mary Cybulski.  Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

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With a straightforward title, Rupert Goold’s “True Story” is just that. The film is based on former New York Times writer Michael Finkel’s book of the same title and his association with Christopher Longo, a man in Oregon who was accused and convicted of murdering his family. With a gripping premise and fair acting, this crime thriller is able to keep viewers on the edge of their seat for an intense 100 minutes.

Starting the film off, a promising young journalist, Finkel, played by Jonah Hill (“Moneyball”), works on a feature story that 15 minutes later leads to his journalistic downfall. He is accused of embellishing keys facts within the story and is reluctant to admit that he has lied at all. His journalistic career seems tarnished, as the New York Times fires him and he struggles to find any other writing job. He moves back to Montana to be with his wife, Jill, played by Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”).

While there, he learns something surprising: A man who was recently caught in Mexico by U.S. authorities gave the police a pseudonym, “Michael Finkel.” This man is Longo, played by James Franco (“127 Hours”), a man who ran away to Mexico after murdering his wife and three children. Finkel makes contact with Longo in prison. Longo agrees to see him because it turns out that Longo is a fan of Finkel’s writing. During Finkel’s visit, Longo tells him that he will make a deal: He will let Finkel write and publish his story only after his trial. But there’s a catch — in return, Finkel must teach him to write.

Their relationship begins to grow as they bond during their frequent meetings. The only problem is that Longo doesn’t feel ready to tell Finkel what exactly happened the night his family died, because he feels that no one would believe his account. Throughout the film, Finkel struggles with wanting to believe in Longo’s innocence. He feels that they are alike and that through Longo’s struggles, he is learning about himself. Both men have had trouble with the truth, and both of them have faced consequences within society.

But things change as the trial begins. With Longo constantly dangling his story over Finkel’s head, the rollercoaster that is their relationship turns electrifyingly dark. The complete backstory of Longo’s life and crimes takes a step to the side in the film, as the main focus is on the relationship between the two liars.

Franco and Hill play off each other well in a tantalizing, eerie way. But viewers will be left with the job of choosing whether to fully immerse themselves in the characters or remain stuck remembering the duo’s many comedy films. Franco’s performance is haunting, as he fits frighteningly well into the role of a prison inmate convicted of murder. He plays with the viewer like he plays with Finkel, passing through the screen with a sense of charisma and a sickeningly alluring presence that resonate with society’s intense fascination with grotesque murders. It is easy to relate to Hill’s Finkel, as he is trying to recover from a major career setback while at the same time is presented with an unusual opportunity.

The film’s stark-white color choice for the prison and the freezing Montana exterior makes the setting feel exposed — an exposure that allows only for unobstructed truth. But there are constant manipulations of the truth as the characters struggle between veracity and lies.

Many questions loom throughout the viewing, especially when tensions begin to rise as the characters both manipulate and benefit each other. The film is more concerned with looking into the psyche of the two characters’ relationship as it comes to play with each other as opposed to alone. Did Finkel find himself through Longo? Or is this just an unfortunate event in Finkel’s life from which he also happens to benefit?

Both their relationship and the film are dark and unsettling. How can a man kill his family, and how can another man find a sense of himself within the other? These are concepts with which the audience will be forced to grapple, because the truth in this drama won’t be a straightforward revelation.

Contact Jeanette Zhukov at [email protected].