The most compelling aspect of Rupert Goold’s feature directorial debut True Story is the actual story. It’s a truly twisted tale, but one that seems more ripe for a The Jinx like documentary (those true crime stories are definitely all the rage right now), rather than a feature film. In the end, Goold and writer David Kajganich aren’t able to wring anything more out of the story than the plot itself. With such an interesting mystery at it’s core — did Longo really do it, and why? — it slowly turns into a psychological boxing match between Finkel and Longo that is too subtle to take hold.
While the focus is on Finkel, and to some degree his completely underwritten wife Jill (Felicity Jones), it’s Franco’s natural, and creepy, charisma as Longo that’s the most interesting part of the film. Based on Finkel’s book about the matter, it makes sense that the story focuses on how the entire affects him rather than a straight who-done-it, but there’s just never enough to latch onto.
Beginning with the downward spiral of shamed New York Times writer Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), caught for bending the truth in a cover story, his career is on the line when he hears about the capture of one of the FBI’s ten most wanted criminals. Christian Longo (James Franco) was captured on the lam in Mexico and charged with murdering his wife and three kids. Longo was also hiding under Finkel’s identity. Of course, Finkel is curious while this suspected killer stole his identity and discovers that Longo is a fan of his writing, subsequently giving him exclusive access as the only journalist he’ll speak with. Finkel’s article soon ballons into a book as the film wants to illuminate the psychological struggle Finkel falls into with the perhaps not-so-truthful Longo.
The issue is that neither character is fully developed enough to care about their relationship as the film’s main force. Franco exudes a disturbing sincerity, but everything really rests on Hill’s shoulders and he just isn’t able to sustain it. The two actors ultimately feel mismatched. In some ways that works because Franco’s magnetism overpowers Hill’s Frankel, and the viewer, but Hill just isn’t able to do much beyond that, and that’s where the film eventually stagnates. Finkel’s wife, Jill, is also shoved in as she becomes increasingly concerned, and perhaps disturbed, but her character is completely undeveloped and her longing looks are too vague to really understand what she’s feeling and, sadly, why she’s in the film at all.
Goold slowly transforms the film into a mood piece, a meditation on humanity, but it’s all too undercooked to really mean anything. It seems that the film isn’t sure what it wants to focus on — they mystery of Longo’s actions or his relationship with Finkel. At the very least, it’s never quite able to unify the two threads to become something greater. While it’s a decent watch for the story and performances alone, it also has so much squandered potential.
Rating: 3 out of 5