The title of True Story, taken from the memoir it's based upon, seems to assure the audience of a mind-blowing premise. You won’t believe what you’re about to hear, it implies. The film’s presumed hero, journalist Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), was flying high at the New York Times before suddenly crashing after it emerged that he had falsified an article. Recuperating at home in Montana, he learns that a fugitive named Christian Longo (James Franco), accused of murdering his family, has adopted Finkel’s name while on the lam. Now in jail, and supposedly a fan, he offers Finkel the exclusive rights to his story—and a chance at redemption. So far so gripping, but despite the promise of the original tale, this filmed adaptation from director Rupert Goold feels oddly underwhelming.
At heart, Finkel's story is one about manipulation. After combining several narratives into one composite character in an article on the African slave trade, Finkel lost his job at The Times, damaging his career enough to make Longo’s offer intriguing. Longo was, by all accounts, a monstrous man—with a preponderance of evidence linking him to the strangling of his wife and the drowning of their four children—but he professed himself a fan of Finkel’s work, and wanted to learn how to write from him.
The imagery of True Story is treacherously familiar—how many films have drawn tension from the simplicity of an ordinary man sitting opposite an extraordinarily scary one in a blank prison room? Hill plays Finkel as polite, cautious, and matter-of-fact, but the weight of the scenes always fall on Franco, whose media presence is so saturated with irony that it’s hard to remember what a talented performer he can be. His Longo is wearily handsome and quietly amiable, always letting on how impressed he is with Finkel, and deflecting any specific question about the crimes he’s accused of with vague hints that he might be covering for another guilty party.
It’s enough to keep Finkel, and the audience, interested—but just barely. The tension of Franco and Hill’s early scenes together maintains intrigue for a while, but True Story never quite indicates that it has something compelling going on beneath the surface. Longo never drops the mask to reveal the Hannibal Lecter-esque monster viewers all assume lurks underneath. Finkel himself sees Longo as his ticket out of media purgatory, a true-crime blockbuster and a personal story of redemption all wrapped up into one hot book advance. The film never presents either character as particularly sympathetic, and that chilliness eventually does it a disservice.
Since the audience only knows Finkel as a failure and an admitted liar—the film shows 10 minutes of him interviewing slaves in Africa and then arrogantly marching around the Times offices before he’s shown the door—it’s hard to root for him to bounce back. Harder still since it's quite obvious Longo is messing with him: No matter the sincere darkness of the letters he writes Finkel on yellow legal pads, the margins clogged with creepy drawings of ghostly figures, one never quite comes around to the idea that he might plausibly be innocent. Franco wisely plays Longo as a serial charmer, from an opening scene in Mexico where he beds a German tourist, to a phone call to Finkel’s wife Jill (Felicity Jones) that brims with surface-level pleasantness. But that’s all he is—a charmer.
For most of the film, Jill feels like plot baggage, skulking around supportively as Finkel mopes in their warm ski-lodge of a Montana home. As she proved in The Theory of Everything, Jones can spin a lot from thin characterization, but in this film, Jill is nothing more than a disapproving shadow, clearly disturbed by Finkel’s fascination with Longo without ever giving voice to it. The film’s insistence on giving her screen time feels almost patronizing because the script gives her so little to work with (She does finally get one confrontation with Longo but never with her husband).
True Story isn't exactly a terrible film: All of the actors acquit themselves just fine, and there’s admirable restraint to Hill and Franco’s onscreen chemistry, if only because their work together is usually on the comically absurd side. (In their last collaboration, This Is the End, Hill played himself as a hilariously obsequious villain.) Goold has a strong reputation from his work at London’s Almeida Theater, but he brings nothing of note to such a stark story—his only lurid touch is dropped-in re-enactments of Longo’s murders, presented in plodding slow-mo. They present no actual violence, yet still feel lamely gratuitous. It’s the one obviously false note, but while everything else is more tasteful, none of it can land even the softest punch.