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Movie Review: True Story

True Story's manipulative nature betrays itself at the bitter end.

Review by Matt Cummings

In Rupert Goold's True Story, NY Times writer Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) is disgraced when news of his embellishment of a featured piece leads to his dismissal and blackballing. While desperately searching for another patron, he receives a call that the murderer Christian Longo (James Franco) has been using Finkel's name and title during his run from the law. He's accused of the heinous 2001 crime of strangling his wife and dumping his three young children into suitcases, all of whom were found floating in an Oregon channel. Finkel believes this story will signal his comeback, agreeing to help Longo write a book about the murder trial and his involvement in the crime. But lies and deception are never far behind, as Finklel gets dragged into Longo's web, placing Mike and wife Jill (Felicity Jones) at emotional and professional odds. As the trial ends and a decision is rendered, Mike and Jill must ask themselves: is Longo a scapegoat or a dangerous manipulator?

There is an uneasy stillness behind True Story, as if the murderous nature behind Franco's slick character is tightly controlled, waiting to be unleashed on some unsuspecting stooge. That gives him plenty of chances to mislead Mike and the audience, and for the most part it works. Skin crawls, shock commences, then the jury does what any good jury sets out to do: determine the defendant's real guilt or innocence. But until that happens, we see how Longo's growing list of lies begin to pile on top of each other, soon overwhelming Mike and leading us to wonder at each turn if Longo is telling the truth now...or now...or how about now. When the verdict is reached, we feel a little silly for thinking Longo had a chance, but it's what happens afterwards that left me scratching my head.

Hill continues to expand his resume with a solid performance as the writer who can't seem to get enough of his newest fan. There's an unspoken (dare I say) affection each has for the other: Mike the disgraced writer hoping to recapture his mojo, and Longo desperately needing the same sort of respect from anyone who will listen. And that is where True Story's irresistible force meets its own immovable logic and why some audience members will take exception to its ending. Why Finkel chooses to continue communicating with Longo long after a judgement is reached is beyond me. We're even lead to believe that two powerful scenes involving Jill and then Mike against Longo reflect their collective moment of clarity: on their own, both work exceptionally well. Yet, the film ends soon afterwards without us seeing how any of this has truly affected their marriage. Moreover, title cards before the credits tell us that Finkel and Longo still meet every Sunday to this day - huh? I guess truth is stranger than fiction, because it's based on Finkel's memoir. But it still doesn't do a very good job of getting at the real reasons why Finkel stayed around, and why Jill ultimately lets him.

Story succumbs to its own version of fudging the real details behind some of the events Goold presents, none of which are worthy enough to derail the film. Sadly Story accomplishes that on its own by failing to explain why the two men's friendship has endured for so long. We never discover the modus operandi behind these characters, leaving us to form our own wild theories. I'm such debate is what Goold intended - and that's supposed to be a good thing - but in this case I wonder if another 5 minutes of exposition wouldn't have benefited the audience. True, some endings are best left to one's imagination, but it's the sort of unhealthy discussion after the lights come up that tinges what are some of the best performances of 2015. Another issue I have is the reigned-in role for Jones, who raised lip and frumpy nature are about the most interesting things about her until her tirade at Longo near film's end. Her role in many ways is totally disposable, leaving her out to dry as Mike returns over and over to prison without telling Jill why it's so important. That puts her in an odd position for most of the film, nearly an island onto her own.

Yet to the film's credit, Story doesn't devolve into a simple terror plot, even though Jill does receive the requisite creepy call from Christian that's shown in the trailer. Goold knows how to blur the lines here, making Christian into a sympathetic figure that Finkel can never quite figure out. Franco and Hill use that to their advantage, gliding effortlessly throughout, their long history in Hollywood reflecting in their terrific chemistry. It's odd to see such funny men in such serious roles, but Goold commands them right to the end, even if that end seems too sudden.

True Story succeeds as much as it fails, leading the audience on a twisty road of rationalizations and the obsession people have to feel wanted and admired. It's recommended, but be prepared to debate its rather sudden end.

True Story is Rated R for language and some disturbing material and has a runtime of 100 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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