True Story: a sure-footed debut

April 16, 2015

True Story
Grade: 89
Cast: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee, Genevieve Angelson, Gretchen Mol, Maria Dizzia, Betty Gilpin, Robert John Burke
Director: Rupert Goold
Rating: R for language and some disturbing material
Running time: 100 minutes

By Dan Lybarger for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood, dirt & angels

True Story earns its chills not by jolting the audience or by surprising them with developments that come from nowhere. Instead, British director Rupert Goold, making his feature debut, fills the movie with a constant sense of dread and unease. Throughout the movie, details don’t add up, characters act oddly and the reasons are unexpected, even when they later become obvious.

The movie begins by following two men half the world apart from each other. The first, (Jonah Hill), is a journalist who uses questionable techniques in investigating a new slave trade in Africa. He also seems to be out of place for such a rugged environment. The Third World is rough even for people who aren’t suffering from asthma.

MV5BMTAzNTc5MTA0NzleQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDU1MDM2NzMx._V1_SX214_AL_The phenomenon he’s covering is alarming, but for a fellow who claims to work for a prestigious news outlet, it’s odd that he’s paying people to talk with him. That’s a taboo with a lot of news organizations because it can lead subjects to make exaggerated claims in hopes of pleasing the reporter.

He also seems more eager to prove a point instead of letting the evidence in front of his eyes speak for itself. Back in New York, he seems more concerned about his poker game than in the story that’s due for his impatient editor (Gretchen Mol).

In Mexico, another man is wandering through a cathedral trying to light an electric candle. He finds a German woman and instantly sweeps her off her feet even though she only knows a smattering of English. Seeing a police car parked near the ground floor of his hotel might make some nervous, but this fellow goes about his business as if the cops weren’t really coming for him.

Despite the distance, both men claim to be Michael Finkel of The New York Times, even though neither knows the other.

The actual reporter for the Times loses his job when his superiors discover his powerful story about Africa has composite characters and other less than ethical content. Michael’s doppelganger in North America is actually Oregon resident Christian Longo (James Franco), who’s wanted for the murder of his wife (Maria Dizzia) and three small children. While he was on the run, Christian claimed to be Michael.

Naturally, this arouses Michael’s curiosity, so he meets Christian in jail. The facts of the murder are as odd as the accused man himself, so Michael begins to wonder if Christian could actually be innocent. Or maybe he’s trying to exploit Michael’s eagerness for journalistic redemption.

In lesser hands, True Story could have been an excuse for shallow histrionics and cheap dramatic gestures. Thankfully, having Franco play Christian is a wise choice. While the actor normally enjoys dining on scenery, this time around Franco goes for subtle quirks. He smirks when most actors would bellow, and he’s the picture of calm as he describes the senseless deaths of Christian’s family. As a result, he’s a lot scarier and more unsettling than the usual movie murder suspect.

Hill achieves an interesting balance by making Michael eager to regain his innocence while also filling him with a resignation that nothing he does will ever get him back in his profession’s good graces. He’s constantly plagued by a sense that he shouldn’t be falling dangerously in love with another story, especially since it’s driving him away from his wife, Jill (Felicity Jones).

Jones thankfully gets to play more than a long-suffering girlfriend. With nothing to prove, her Jill can see the story with a detachment that Michael can’t and won’t take any baloney from the charming but squirrely murder suspect.

Because Goold is working with Finkel’s actual memoir, it’s a good thing he has avoided shocking revelations. Instead, he correctly senses that the most unsettling stories are those that seem amiss but aren’t immediately understood as to why.

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