The best thing the true crime drama True Story has going for it is the ripped-from-the-headlines plot at its center, which is strange, complicated, unsettling stuff. Director Rupert Goold (making his cinematic debut after decades of helming well-regarded stage productions) recreates the specifics of that story with competent, no-nonsense clarity, but the problem is that neither he nor his lead actors really have much to bring to the table. At times, this feels like a big-budget version of one of those grim crime show reenactments, as an intriguing true story is presented with flat-but-serviceable direction and acting.
The film begins with Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street), a respected New York Times reporter who has just finished writing up a big story about the African slave trade. Alas, Finkel is fired after his employers learn that he fudged a few details for the sake of giving the story a little more dramatic punch. It's a serious blow to his career, but a strange new opportunity is just around the corner.
Meanwhile, a man named Christian Longo (James Franco, The Interview) is fleeing from the law after being accused of murdering his wife and three young children. While hiding out in Mexico, Longo uses Finkel's name as a fake identity – it seems he's a big fan of Finkel's writing, and knows enough about him to convincingly fake a few personal details. After Longo is captured, the real Finkel hears about the story and proceeds to arrange a meeting with the suspected killer. At the very least, he figures this could turn into an interesting article for someone... or hey, maybe even a book deal.
The conversations between the two men start with simple question-and-answer sessions, but quickly turn into something more complicated. Longo begins playing on Finkel's vanity, praising his writing and claiming that the writer has demonstrated a level of fairness and insight in his work that no other journalist matches. Finkel becomes obsessed with Longo, and eventually begins to wonder whether the man might be innocent (despite the fact that Longo has a tendency to avoid directly addressing whether or not he's guilty). Whatever the truth, there's clearly more to Longo's case than meets the eye, and Finkel is determined to dig it up.
This relationship inspires memories of a number of other crime movies, particularly The Silence of the Lambs and Capote. There are assorted, occasionally conflicting elements of empathy, suspicion, manipulation, generosity and selfishness at play, which must have seemed deliciously complicated on paper but never turns into anything particularly riveting on-screen. I think at least some of the blame can be placed on Goold's writing, which struggles to make exposition-heavy exchanges feel like real human conversations. There's a very stilted, canned quality to a lot of the dialogue, which seems particularly odd given that improv veterans like Hill and Franco are the stars.
Speaking of which: the two leads must also shoulder some of the blame here, as both men struggle to bring much definition to the theoretically juicy parts they've been handed. Franco's work is particularly flat, as he attempts to capture Longo's enigmatic nature by more or less playing him as a blank space. The result of that approach is a character who never seems half as riveting as the film wants us to think he is. He's intentionally boring, but never in a way that feels interesting or revealing. Hill fares a little better, turning Finkel into an easily-manipulated opportunist who's just a little too comfortable with making moral compromises for the sake of a good story. Unfortunately, Hill struggles to capture the inner conflict his later scenes demand. To borrow a phrase from Walter Sobchak, they're out of their element... or at least off their game.
Despite these significant problems, the story itself has some power the film doesn't entirely fumble (at the very least, the film's title is promoting the right thing). Some of the courtroom scenes – in which some version of the truth is finally laid on the table – have a eerily calm, bone-chilling quality, as horrifying moments are recounted with relaxed, detailed focus. You can sense the jury members' fists starting to clench, and you can sense the sinking feeling in one character's stomach. In such moments, you get a glimpse of the gripping film True Story could have been in the hands of somebody who knew what to do with it. What we actually get is hardly unwatchable, but the writing, direction and performances feel so bland and conservative that the whole thing fades from your memory as soon as it ends.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 2015