The nature of truth, and its often complex relationship with storytelling, has long been a firm thematic fixture for filmmakers, the unreliable narrator often cast as our buoy amidst a narrative sea of contradictory points of view. Yet while this fixation has proved intrinsic to the enduring appeal of classics of the noir genre, it takes a distinct understanding of form and character to pull it off, not least a narrative that’s compelling in its own right. Remove any of these variables, and audience alienation is a foregone conclusion. Pitting Jonah Hill and James Franco against type and one another, True Story aims to investigate the ungraspable mindset of a man charged with the horrific murder of his entire family. Sadly, by the time the credits roll, we don’t feel as if we are any closer to understanding the man in question, nor his confidante, with the film feigning suspense and intrigue through deployment of every trope available.”
We first meet Hill’s ambitious journalist Michael Finkel in Africa, employing dubious reporting methods as he assembles another front page story for the New York Times Magazine. Found out for amalgamating the stories of a group of young slaves, he’s rightfully given his notice. With his arrogant air and self-righteous attitude, it’s difficult to like Finkel, who rarely even acknowledges his art historian wife Jill (A largely-wasted Felicity Jones), unless to dispense details of his latest story. So when the story of Christian Longo (Franco) falls on his lap, there’s little in the way of potential growth, only a steeper slope for this man of already questionable integrity. Longo is introduced as a flannel-wearing everyman, journeying through Mexico on what’s later revealed as the day following the murders. Shown in idealised flashback as a doting father, and with no prior convictions in the lead up to the tragic event, the character’s early scenes posit a relative sense of intrigue. It’s unfortunate then, that the Finkel-Longo tete-a-tete, with the two men meeting daily in the lead up to Longo’s trial, is strangely devoid of tension throughout. We learn that Longo has followed Finkel throughout his career, and the inmate’s journals, complete with dark, demonic sketches, reveal a troubled mind, the writings displaying a peculiar kinship with Finkel’s. Because this is a film, Finkel lines the walls of his home with its pages, a predilection for any journalist worth their salt.
It’s just one amongst the film’s many concessions to formula which undermine proceedings. That Masanobu Takayanagi’s often gorgeous cinematography emerges as the film’s primary redeeming feature only intensifies the core issues with True Story. On the other end of the spectrum, the screenplay, co-written by David Kajganish and director Rupert Goold, fails to draw a compelling link between Finkel and Longo, mistaking emptiness for ambiguity in its character sketches, not helped in the least by Franco’s increasingly sedated turn. Yet he can’t harbour all the blame; despite its sensationalist subject matter’s potential to develop into a think-piece on a Gone Girl scale, True Story feels rote and flat, often nowhere near as compelling as it strives to be. A climactic courtroom scene, in which Longo finally gives the public his take on events, betrays Goold’s theatre background, lasting an eternity without generating any level of suspense. Attempts to shoehorn Jones’ otherwise pointless Jill are admirable, yet prove foolhardy, the recent Oscar nominee appearing mildly embarrassed during her cringeworthy confrontation with Longo.
Similarly to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the closing title card hints at a far more compelling film, had a less by-the-book approach been taken. Given the level of talent involved, this can only go down as a colossal missed opportunity. As it stands, True Story feels like a little less than half the truth.