Mark Reviews Movies

True Story


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rupert Goold

Cast: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some disturbing material)

Running Time: 1:40

Release Date: 4/17/15 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 16, 2015

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but there's an obvious caveat to that old cliché: The truth has to be true. True Story puts that stipulation to the test, providing two untrustworthy storytellers to present a narrative in which the truth is always in doubt. The first narrator, who filters the story for us, is a journalist who, at the start of the film, is accused of playing loose with the facts of a story about cocoa plantation workers in West Africa. The second is a man accused of the brutal murders of his wife and three young children.

Both men deny the charges against them. We have good reason not to trust either of them.

The connection between these two men arises from a deceit: While on the lam in Mexico, the accused murderer claims that he is actually the journalist. This piques the interest of the journalist for obvious reasons, although a less obvious one is perhaps the real driving force for the relationship between these two men. It's also the most apparent characteristic they share, despite how far apart their alleged crimes may be. It's egotism, narcissism, or whatever one wants to call the men's shared belief that whatever story they have to tell or weave is more important than the truth.

The journalist is Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), who loses his job at the New York Times in 2001 after questions surface about his reporting in West Africa. The accused murderer is Christian Longo (James Franco), who, around the same time that Mike is undergoing his professional troubles, is arrested in Mexico after spending a night with a random female tourist. While on a hopeless job hunt, Mike receives a call from a reporter (Ethan Suplee) in Oregon who wants to know Mike's thoughts on a man accused of quadruple homicide using his name. It's the first he has heard of the situation, and after learning the details of the crime, Mike writes a lengthy letter to Christian.

Christian agrees to a meeting in prison. During their first conversation, he agrees to give Mike exclusive access to him on one condition: that the professional writer teaches him how to write. Christian is a fan of Mike's work, and that's the reason he used Mike's name while on the run. Any writer will tell you that a compliment like that will earn the writer's attention. In Christian's story, Mike sees the chance to get his career back on track.

A good portion of the film, based on Finkel's memoir of the same name, devotes its time to these conversations. It's a game of sorts. Part of the terms of that game, of course, is in trying to determine how much information Christian is feeding Mike is legitimate and how much of it is bunk. The screenplay by Rupert Goold, who also directed the film, and David Kajganich also plays with our understanding of Christian's character and his take on events, since we're seeing both through Mike's perspective. Mike is a sympathetic ear for Christian's tale of insecurity and regret—not for any crime but for lacking as a husband and father in big (not having a job, which is something Mike can understand) and little (not being able to buy new toys for his children) ways.

There are two vital questions here: 1.) Can we trust Christian; and 2.) when he's only seeking out Christian's side, is Mike capable of telling this story in an objective way? The second question is where the film earns a lot of tension.

We see Mike pulled into Christian's influence—from the compliment to the sob stories to the way both men doodle within the margins of their writing. At Mike's request, Christian scratches out a 40-or-so-page manifesto of sorts about his life, his marriage, and his fatherhood. Mike sees in it what he wants to see—or, perhaps, what Christian wants him to see. His wife Jill (Felicity Jones), who focuses more on the crimes than the man alleged to have committed them, stares at the drawings within Christian's memoir, which Mike has pinned to his office in their home, and sees something darker.

The performances are strong, with Hill playing a man desperate for a second chance and Jones, even though her character has little to do, finely representing a conscientious party apart from the self-serving main players. The standout, though, is Franco, who plays Christian as a quiet and thoughtful man who seems sincere in his every statement. We can understand his appeal for Mike, even with the heavy burden of Christian's alleged crimes weighing down on our view of him.

When the trial begins, everything comes crashing down on Mike and, as a result, our comprehension of what really matters in this story and who Christian actually is. The specifics of the crime come out in court through convincing testimony and disturbing crime scene photos. The family members of the victims avoid Mike's looks, burn holes into him with their own stares, and accost him for ignoring them in favor of Christian. Goold ensures we know the impact of each point on its own and on how it affects Mike, and Hill's performance becomes stronger as Mike realizes he'll need to seek redemption for a different reason.

In short, we see how much Mike has overlooked in his search for the truth about the accused—primarily, the truth itself. True Story fascinates beyond the initial hook of the story, offering a harsh critique of personality-based journalism within its study of two manipulative men who intentionally or accidentally have lost sight of what constitutes the truth.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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