Published Apr 17, 2015What does it mean when someone tells you a story so unbelievable that they have to promise it's a true story? In this case, what does "true" mean? Or "story," for that matter?
In his directorial debut, Rupert Goold examines this question, as disgraced New York Times journalist Michael Finkel (played by Jonah Hill) attempts to make sense of four murders allegedly committed by Christian Longo (James Franco). Much of the film is based on Finkel's own book, True Story. After Finkel is fired from the Times, a chance event brings him into contact with Longo. At this point, Finkel makes a deal for a story so rich and tantalizing, he is convinced it will save his tarnished career.
The plot plays out strikingly similar to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, as an ambitious journalist stops at nothing for the ultimate story. Goold is interested in toying with the idea of truth, deception and the desperation that leads one to shirk one's ethical duties.
Goold's success in crafting a convincing narrative is buttressed by strong performances from the cast. Hill captures the ferocity of a journalist desperate to mend a career that lacks a key aspect: integrity. He also parodies the ego of a Times journalist through the veil of self-seriousness. It veers to the absurd, and Finkel becomes a caricature whose access to anything and everything is granted merely by uttering the words "New York Times." Hill's performance is only hamstrung by a hesitancy to fully commit to the consequences of his Faustian contract with Longo, whose portrayal by Franco is utterly convincing. His slow, methodical character is unnerving and disarming, playing off of Hill's fusion of intensity and hopelessness. Franco's penchant for monotone delivery dovetails nicely with the bland, minimalist setting of his prison environment.
Matching Franco's intensity is Felicity Jones (most recently in The Theory of Everything) as Jill, Finkel's wife. Frustratingly aloof for most of the film, her wariness counters Finkel's ambition, creating a subtle tension that is executed superbly.
This film is Goold's first foray into feature-length cinema, having made a name for himself as a theatre director. He is playful with his new medium; shots are tight, intimate portraits, and the thoughtfully orchestrated scenes linger a second longer than is comfortable for maximum effectiveness. He also shies away from an overbearing soundtrack to give the movie an ominous tension. Instead, he draws from his skills in the theatre, executing crisp dialogue, all that is needed to prop up the intensity of a true crime thriller.
At times, Goold's freshness to film shows. He occasionally falls victim to the tropes of the Hollywood blockbuster (think: unnaturally heavy rain beating down on a lone car in a motel parking lot, at night). Goold's pursuit of pared-down, minimalist scenes may be the victim of its own ambition. As a first time director, he has two powerhouses in Hill and Franco. Instead of finding limits, he settles for a comfortable balance. The result is a chemistry that works well, but hints at potential that wasn't quite explored.
Ultimately, where True Story succeeds is in its ability to not only fiddle with the notion of truth, but to give its audience the catharsis of finality, a currency often lacking in true crime stories that traffic in epistemic uncertainty.
Take that, Serial.