Two damaged men forge an unlikely—and for at least one clearly unhealthy—relationship in “True Story,” a fact-based but slow-paced legal thriller notable more for its cast than its narrative momentum. This first feature film from noted British theatre director Rupert Goold develops a somberly creepy mood while showcasing performances from James Franco and Jonah Hill that are remarkable for their restraint, but the tale of a disgraced journalist and an accused murderer carries little of the emotional wallop of the similar tale told by Bennett Miller in “Capote.” It’s intriguing rather than shattering.
Hill plays Mike Finkel, an ambitious young writer for the New York Times who’s fired in 2001 after his bosses discover that he’d created a composite character for a Sunday magazine article on the African slave trade. Professionally disgraced, he retreats to the remote Montana home he shares with wife Jill (Felicity Jones), a rare book librarian. Unable to interest anyone in his story ideas, he becomes depressed until a caller asks for his reaction to the fact that Christian Longo, an Oregon man accused of killing his wife and three children, had been using his name while on the lam in Mexico.
Smelling a possible irresistible story as well as a way to redeem himself, Mike approaches the incarcerated Longo for a talk that quickly morphs into a deal: Longo will give him an exclusive if he’ll agree to withhold publication until after the trial—and help him improve his own writing. Before long Finkel’s made a deal for a book that, he expects, will prove the innocence of a man universally reviled for killing his family.
Although the outcome of Longo’s trial is a matter of public record, the movie—adapted by Goold and David Kajganich from Finkel’s memoir—teases viewers with doubts about his guilt, putting them into the same position Finkel was in as he was talking to the man. Much of the running-time is devoted to one-on-one dialogues between the two, which might have had a deadening effect were the choices that he, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and editors Christopher Tellefsen and Nicolas de Toth not so canny and the performances by Franco and Hill not so quietly telling. To be sure, the periodic insertion of flashbacks to Longo’s family life and the killings is merely intrusive rather than unsettling, and the concentration on Finkel and Longo throws all other characters into the shadow. (Jones, for example, is given a few thankless scenes earlier on and one confrontation with Longo toward the close, but Jill is a fairly thin role for a recent Oscar nominee.)
The other major problem with “True Story” is, of course, that while it’s the story of two damaged men, the level of their alleged wrongdoing is vastly different. A journalistic crime like fudging the facts in a story for narrative effect is a significant lapse, but it’s hardly on a par with murdering four people. And while his memoir was a blatant attempt to reclaim some of his professional status—in effect, an apologia—the film needn’t have gone quite so far in that same direction. Finkel suffers so much here—and not just from the asthmatic attacks that crop up with predictable regularity—that his struggles take on an almost operatic air. You have to wonder whether Finkel is worthy of such treatment.
Happily, Hill’s understatement in the role lessens the heavy-handedness, and Franco’s equal degree of restraint keeps Longo from degenerating into a smarmy manipulator until the story demands it. (He could have played to the rafters in the scene in which he testifies on his own behalf, but wisely holds back, even though the “tells” in what he says are a mite obvious as written.) It’s refreshing to learn that both men, whose turns in comedies have throw the slightest hint of subtlety to the winds, still retain the facility to act.
“True Story” also benefits from the locations—the wind-swept Oregon coasts, the snow-packed Montana wilderness—that Takayanagi lingers on lovingly—and from Jeremy Hindle’s elegantly-appointed production design, Deborah Jensen’s attractive art direction, and David Schlesinger’s spot-on set decoration. Marco Beltrami’s atmospheric score—a far cry from the bombast he’s served up so often in the past—is another plus.
One of the truths about “True Story” is that, on screen as well as the page, it can come across as too much special pleading on behalf of Finkel, a man who will still strike many as a man sorrier for getting caught than for what he did. Just as it doesn’t match “Capote” in terms of the relationship that develops between accused and reporter, it fails to equal “Shattered Glass” in terms of its treatment of journalistic malfeasance. But on a less exalted level, it remains a two-hander that raises interesting questions about truth, guilt and redemption, even if it doesn’t handle them as incisively as it might have done.