Is it possible to separate a man from his actions? That is the question at the center of the unsettling movie “True Story” about the twisted relationship between a disgraced reporter and an accused killer.
Based, as the title would suggest, on a true story, former New York Times writer Michael Finkel (played by Jonah Hill) finds his career in shambles after it is discovered he played fast and loose with the facts on one of his signature stories.
It is at this low point when Michael learns Christian Longo (played by James Franco), a man accused of killing his own wife and three young children, assumed Michael’s identity while he was on the lam in Mexico.
Michael decides he wants to meet Christian in prison and find out why he used his name. Not sure of what to expect, Michael is taken aback by Christian, who is intelligent, charming, and claims to be an admirer.
When Christian promises Michael exclusive rights to his story, Michael is all in as he sees an opportunity for professional redemption; especially when Christian begins to hint he might not be as guilty as he appears.
At its core, this is a slight movie, only a notch or two above the true-crime ghoulishness of a Lifetime Movie of the Week. But first-time director Rupert Goold and his two lead actors are able to find enough nuance and depth in this story to deliver a hauntingly effective character study of ambition and manipulation.
Hill is perfectly cast as a man full of false confidence and far-reaching aspirations. He is constantly outsmarting himself and his obsession with Christian’s case begins to unnerve his wife Jill (the great Felicity Jones in a criminally underwritten role. Hopefully, that Oscar nomination will mean she doesn’t have to take parts like this anymore.)
As good as Hill is in this movie, Franco is that much better. I’m solidly Team Franco even if it is unclear if the guy really is a multitalented renaissance man of boundless energy and interests, or if he’s just putting us on.
At any rate, he brings all his skills to bear here as Christian, a man nearly impossible to pin down. He seems vulnerable and thoughtful and tormented, while at the same time almost assuredly guilty of the most monstrous of crimes. There are a few instances in this movie where he takes the creepy knob and turns it up to 11 with nothing more than the expressions on his face and the tone in his voice.
In the end, these are two guys that strangely deserve each other and there is never a fully satisfying answer for why men do the evil they do. “True Story” is about how far a person can bend the truth before it breaks and how devastating it can be when it finally gives way.
“True Story” is rated R for language and some disturbing material.