Directed by Rupert Goold
A mysterious figure watches as a teddy bear falls in slow-motion and lands next to a little girl’s lifeless body. A journalist feverishly works to piece together the day-to-day lives of laborers on an African cocoa plantation. A stranger flirts with a pretty German tourist and invites her to his hotel room only to be arrested for a heinous series of murders. So begins “True Story,” a true crime–drama that struggles to present itself and ultimately falls flat.
Based on the 2005 mea culpa memoir of the same name written by Michael Finkel, the film stars two-time Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill as Finkel, a rising freelance journalist who is fired from The New York Times Magazine after being caught fabricating details for an article highlighting child slaves in the Ivory Coast. With his reputation in tatters, Finkel moves back to rural Montana only to learn that Christian Longo (James Franco), a fugitive about to stand trial for killing his wife and three children, was using his name as an alias when he was arrested in Cancun, Mexico, by federal authorities. Determined to learn the truth, Finkel travels to Oregon, where Longo is being imprisoned and meets Longo face-to-face, only to find himself playing a twisted game of cat-and-mouse.
Although the setup is similar to the archetypal platform for a typical psychological thriller, such as the 1996 Gregory Hoblit courtroom drama “Primal Fear” and the film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ best-seller “The Silence of the Lambs,” “True Story” is a cumbersome film that strongly lacks the tension of the aforementioned films, due to the fact that it relies on plot lines viewers have seen time and time again. The incoherent writing and shoddy directing leave the task of augmenting the plot to the film’s co-stars, both of whom deliver performances that are robotic and one-dimensional. Even though they both have their respective moments, with Hill hinting at the existential crisis his character is going through and Franco delivering subtle yet chilling flashes of manipulation, neither star manages to convince viewers. It seems as if director Rupert Goold, who is mainly known for his career as the artistic director of the Almeida Theatre in London’s West End, was too preoccupied with filming a melodrama instead of a thriller.
Standing between the co-stars is Academy Award–nominated actress Felicity Jones, whose performance as Finkel’s partner, Jill, is one-note. Best known for her role as Jane Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” Jones comes across as a mousy librarian who does not stand up for herself or for anyone else. This comes with the exception of a scene that occurs near the climax of the film, when she confronts Longo in prison and tells him off while comparing his actions to those of Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, who killed his wife, her lover and their son. While it may appear as though Jones is attempting to build up her character as a force to be reckoned with, her speech is ultimately as inconsistent and overly theatrical.
The overabundance of multiple exposure montages and slow-motion shots make it appear as though Goold has lost control of the story. The fleeting, sunlit glimpses of Longo running through a park with his kids, holding his youngest child and kissing his wife detract from the plot in such a way that viewers quickly grow tired of the portentous technique.
Perhaps the most mentally taxing part of watching this movie is figuring out which character to sympathize with. Despite Goold’s attempts to portray Finkel as the “good guy,” Hill’s character fails to evoke even the smallest ounce of remorse from viewers. The same can be said for the other two members of the main cast, as both Longo and Jill stick to just one emotion and both fail to undergo any substantial growth. This could have been easily remedied if Goold took his time in fleshing out each individual character.
In all, “True Story” is a classic example of when horror becomes repetitive and tired. Both the inane plot and the severe lack of characterization make it extremely difficult to enjoy watching this film. The execution of this cliched look into finding the truth within a complex web of lies is not one worth seeing and will only garner disappointment.