If you see that Jonah Hill and James Franco are in the same film, you’d be forgiven for assuming it would be a lightweight comic affair, given their mutual associations and previous work. However, in artistic theatre director Rupert Goold’s first foray into film, laughs are nowhere to be found. The mystery thriller ‘True Story’ is based on the memoir of the same name by former New York Times writer Mike Finkel, following his journalistic fall from grace. After losing his job due to fabricated storytelling, Finkel (Hill) discovers that Christian Longo (Franco), who is awaiting trial for the murder of his wife and three children, is using his name as an alias. Eager to explore the matter further, he arranges a prison visit, which triggers a psychological meeting of the minds that changes both of their lives forever.
The story starts in the frantic journo office environment of New York, full of cool cats, coffee and cockiness, but relocates to desolate Montana when Finkel’s corner-cutting on a slave trade scoop catches up with him. Alone with his thoughts while his doting wife is at work, the snowy cinematography is eerie and chilling, and effectively sets the tone for what is to come. When the protagonists meet, they share a Clarice-meets-Lecter-esque opening encounter fraught with tension. During their multiple conversations that form the structure of the plot going forward, Goold and David Kajganich’s script delves into the disturbing subject matter as the camera probes and investigates their expressions and reactions, peeling back the layers of their personalities and more importantly, the homicide case looming over Longo.
Out of his comfort zone, Jonah Hill gives a hugely impressive performance as Mike Finkel, proving yet again he is capable of pulling off the darker, serious roles. With a skewed and swaying moral compass, he increases in depth as the account unfolds. He is a deep-down good person who unfortunately makes naive, misjudged decisions due his career-driven desire and hunger to succeed. Franco is equally interesting, and it is evident that he thrives on portraying the mystifying menace of Longo. There are passing moments when it’s difficult to disassociate him from the comedic performances we link him with, but for the most part he is creepy and cold behind the eyes. Hill and Franco are so good that multi-award nominated actress Felicity Jones is both underwhelming and admittedly underused as Finkel’s wife Jill.
‘True Story’ gives Finkel and Longo’s bizarre tale the cinematic limelight it deserves, and though it is obviously bound by the actual events that took place, it never feels restricted or held back in any way. Goold directs subtly, his artistic background manifesting nicely in a neat filmic style. The steady dialogue-driven pace allows for a thorough examination of the weighty ethical themes in the build-up to a suspenseful court-case finale. With measured turns from both Hill and Franco at the helm, it would be criminal to leave this true story untold.