The second pairing of James Franco and Jonah Hill couldn’t be any more different to their last, the meta-apocalyptic comedy This
- This isn’t funny.
- Stay well away if films like Zodiac left you with a frustrating lack of closure.
The key words with Rupert Goold’s film are both in the title: “True” and “Story”. The first is in questions it asks repeatedly. What is truth? Is it the same as facts? Is my truth the same as yours? Is it an absolute or entirely subjective? All the above questions are impossible to answer definitively, but what True Story suggests is that the truth is only ever that: a story.
Franco’s Christian Longo is an excellent storyteller. He’s charming, convincing and spins a narrative so tantalisingly that you want to believe what he says. Hill’s Michael Finkel is also an excellent storyteller, an investigative journalist for the New York Times, travelling the world, exposing injustices, spinning the narrative in a way that entices readers to care. But one spin too many on a story of modern day slavery and Finkel is out on his ear, his reputation in tatters, that nasty concept of truth coming back to sabotage his good intentions.
Longo and Finkel are brought together under strange circumstances. Longo is arrested in Mexico, on the run after he becomes the prime suspect in the brutal murders of his wife and three children. When apprehended, he’s telling people he’s Michael Finkel of the New York Times.
And so Finkel is drawn into Longo’s game. Desperate to redeem himself after being fired by the Times, Finkel goes to meet Longo and agrees to tell his story. But Finkel has no idea how difficult that will be. For one, nobody seems to be able to get a grip on what Longo’s story actually is. It shifts, it changes, it turns on its head, it becomes whatever Longo wants it to be.
In this regard, Franco does a superb job. His portrayal of Longo sucks in the audience in the same way that Finkel is sucked in. The chemistry between Franco and Hill is also exceptional, most of the film playing out as conversations between the two men using each other and the “truth” to satisfy their own agendas.
The film’s sucker punch comes in its courtroom scene, the horror of Longo’s family’s final moments spelled out plainly and unquestionably as facts. Goold uses this and one other moment of emotional heft beautifully to jolt the audience off the path down which they’ve been led.
True Story is built around a cynical, frustrating concept, believing that you can believe nothing. What tempers this is the presence of Felicity Jones as Finkel’s wife Jill. Not only does Jones deliver a typically excellent performance, she also provides an empathetic conduit for the audience and a voice of reason.
Beyond being faulted for lacking closure, this is a film that suggests there can’t ever be closure. It’s an audacious and impressive move for a first-time director and marks Goold as one to definitely keep an eye on in the future.