The true story behind “True Story” is a lot more resonant than the movie. Michael Finkel, whose eponymous 2005 memoir the film is based on, was a celebrated New York Times reporter until his magazine piece on modern slavery in Africa was revealed to be partly fictionalized through the use of composite characters. Picking up the pieces after his dismissal from the Times, Finkel happens upon a story almost too juicy to be true.
Apparently an accused murderer, charged with killing his wife and two children in Oregon, has been picked up by authorities in Mexico. Here’s the juicy part: The accused, Christian Longo, has been passing himself off as Finkel.
Finkel, the real one, is played by Jonah Hill; Longo is played by the ever-present James Franco. (Doesn’t he ever sleep?) Both are unshowy and effective, especially Franco, whose trademark bland affability is particularly appropriate here. Felicity Jones plays Finkel’s perplexed wife and, except for a big showdown scene with Longo near the end, is given too little to do.
The crux of the movie is the unsettling enveloping relationship between Finkel and Longo, as Finkel, repeatedly interviewing Longo in prison, attempts to root out the truth in preparation for a book. Longo implies he is innocent but sets the condition that anything Finkel writes about him must postdate the upcoming murder trial. It’s not clear why he sets this condition, since anything that might absolve him of his crime would certainly help his case – one of many loose ends the film doesn’t tie up.
Director Rupert Goold keeps things appropriately creepy, but “True Story” is no “Capote.” It’s all buildup with little payoff. Grade: B- (Rated R for language and some disturbing material.)