There’s a truly great movie buried somewhere in the disappointingly decent ‘True Story’. The tragic source material was an ideal springboard for a disturbing adult drama, and the central stunt-casting of Jonah Hill and James Franco was just crazy enough to work. Unfortunately, first time director Rupert Goold doesn’t quite have the skill or sensitivity to pull off his movie.
Goold has certainly made a very handsome film hinged on a pair of strong performances with moments that cry out to be taken seriously. The trouble is that it’s very mannered, arch and calculated, which is a pretty major flaw in a movie that’s supposed to be about the complex nature of truth.
Jonah Hill stars as disgraced New York Times reporter Michael Finkel, who fudged some facts about the contemporary slave trade in Africa. As a result, he lost his job and his credibility. Finkel stumbles home with his tail between his legs into the arms of his beautiful and supporting wife (Felicity Jones, who only has those two adjectives to define her character) and tries to figure out how to rebuild his shattered career. Out of the blue, he learns that a man has been arrested who was using Finkel’s identity to hide out from Johnny Law.
That man is Christian Longo, and he’s about to be convicted for murdering his wife and children. He has refused to say a word about his motivations or involvement in the crimes so far, but Finkel quickly talks Longo into telling his story exclusively, provided that the eventual book isn’t published until after the trial. Thus begins a battle of wits between a charming murderer filled with secrets and a seemingly sincere journalist with plenty of his own foibles. Cue some tête-à-tête and long drawn out pontifications on the fleeting nature of truth. Sigh…
Finkel’s book that served as the basis for this film is a fascinating piece of work made doubly complicated by the unfortunate reputation of its author and the creepy fact that he still calls Longo every month. It was a perfect vehicle for a movie, as that would allow an outside voice to come in and either dismantle the source or heighten its ambiguity. A slippery, tricky and above all disturbing movie deserved to be made, but unfortunately that’s not the one that we got. Instead, longtime British theatre director Goold seems to have decided to impersonate the repertoire of Bennett Miller (‘Foxcatcher’, ‘Moneyball’) poorly. Every shot holds just a little too long to suggest an awkward reality or poignant truth dangling in the silence. The pace is carefully measured to ensure the audience knows it’s meant to be taken quite seriously. Constant flashbacks to the crime are shot through pretty pictures in an attempt to heighten the disturbance. Performances play out quietly, in an attempt to build tension in anticipation of big dramatic bursts.
These filmmaking techniques have all been employed well many times before, but Goold delivers his movie rather stiltedly. The pacing feels more dull than enigmatic. The use of symbolism and cutaway imagery is almost unbearably heavy-handed, and Goold’s never-ending search for beauty shots ensures that his film feels quite staged at all times. In every moment, you’re aware that you’re watching a movie, and that makes it almost impossible to consider the story a representation of reality, which is a major problem given that reality is the primary subject. (See title for more.)
There are times when Goold’s very specific brand of handsomely downbeat storytelling delivers powerful moments. It’s easy to see what he was going for, and this is certainly an accomplished movie for a first-timer. However, Goold simply wasn’t experienced enough to pull off the cinematic sleight of hand he was emulating. He pushes everything just a little too hard and a little too far. No matter how noble the filmmaker’s intensions might have been, he ultimately topples his own deck of cards.
That’s not to say that ‘True Story’ is a disaster. Franco is suitably disturbing in an oddly charming way, and Hill knows how to play an empathetic deadbeat well. The movie has long passages of their dueling head games that are downright fascinating. Unfortunately, whenever these sequences pull you in, one of Goold’s heavy-handed directorial tricks or Felicity Jones’ embarrassingly underwritten character will pop up to push you right back out.
‘True Story’ is a damn frustrating movie, but not because it’s a bad one. No, the problem is that it could have been a great movie if it weren’t mishandled just enough to teeter into failure.