True Detective. The Jinx. Serial. The success of these recent titles suggests that the public is hungry, not just for tales of murders most foul, but also of glimpses inside the mind of a killer. And so the release the Jonah Hill/James Franco two-hander True Story seems perfectly time. It’s a shame it sucks.
On paper, True Story is the kind of thing that gives Harvey Weinstein award season wood. It’s a stranger than fiction narrative about a common man inexplicably linked to an accused killer. And it’s headed up by not one, but three Oscar nominees: Jonah Hill (Moneyball, Wolf of Wall Street), James Franco (127 Hours), and Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything). But the execution is ham-fisted and tone deaf, making for a thriller more tedious than tense.
Based on the memoir by Michael Finkel, True Story follows the former New York Times golden boy on his fall from grace. After earning an impeccable reputation with a string of powerful cover stories, Finkel (Hill) blatantly lies in a piece about contemporary slavery in Africa, effectively killing his credibility and thereby career as a journalist. Then, things go from bad to weird.
Finkel gets looped into a bizarre murder investigation when the accused Christian Longo is collared in Mexico, and claims to be Mike Finkel of The New York Times.
Seeing the potential for a book that could save his career, Finkel begins meeting with the imprisoned Longo. A fucked up friendship evolves as Finkel’s stoic and nearly mute wife (Jones) flits about looking worried.
We’re meant to find Finkel and Longo’s relationship repulsive yet riveting. But it’s only the former. Finkel is such a self-involved snake that it’s impossible to empathize as he tries to spin his crisis of conscience into an exploitative true crime story. As for Longo, the way people behave toward him suggests that he’s meant to exhibit a irresistible charm. But Franco’s own slippery charisma is MIA. Instead, Franco is so subdued that it seems any moment he might nod off. Meanwhile, Hill has much teeth-gnashing and self-justifying speeches to throw around. None of which makes for compelling cinema, just much eye-rolling.
Part of the problem is the script, stuffed with clichés (“Help me help you”) and lacking in any sense of subtlety. For instance, when a cop is pressuring Finkel to help the prosecution, he says, “I’m trying to make you feel bad enough or guilty enough to talk.” Subtext is hard. Why bother with it?
But more frustrating is the subject matter itself. At one point, what appears to be Longo’s mourning sister-in-law spits in Finkel’s face, demanding to know why this killer’s story is one worth telling. And as the minutes click along, that question echoed louder and louder in my head. Why did writer-director Rupert Goold feel this tale was worth telling?
This is a story about two men who relish in playing the misunderstood victim, when in reality they are only facing the repercussions of their own heinous actions. When Finkel’s fired from the Times, an irate Gretchen Mol demands he think about how his lies will hurt those fighting for the enslaved children in Africa. In response, he begs for his bosses not to kill his career. In court, prosecutors recount Longo’s repugnant crimes, the drowning of his older children after strangling their mother and baby sister, and chucking their bodies into suitcases for disposal. But Longo sobs that no one understands his truth.
Meanwhile, those most dramatically impacted by Finkel and Longo’s choices (the enslaved Africans in need of people of help, the innocent children and loving wife who’s lives were snatched away) are left without a voice in this story. Sometimes literally! The murdered Mary Jane Longo (Maria Dizzia), never speaks a single word. Not even in the numerous flowery flashbacks. But she is shown dead and naked. So there’s that.
I do believe we’re meant to be repulsed by Finkel and Longo. Yet I doubt Goold fully understood why we are. It’s not just for their crimes, it’s also for their firm belief that they are somehow victims. Meanwhile, their actual victims, the African boys, Longo’s wife and children, have their stories literally rewritten by these men. Again.
In the end, I was stuck with that question asked by a nameless character: why was this story worth telling? True Story posed it, but gave me no satisfying answer.