True Story felt like it missed the mark on a few occasions in its attempt at telling the story of Christian Longo and Michael Finkel, however, the story is compelling enough to carry it through and with the help of James Franco and Jonah Hill it was actually pretty entertaining. However, I struggled at times with the film making itself, as it appeared to tick all the boxes for it to be a great thriller but it just lacked substance and artistic finesse to push it into that category. At times I was reminded of the Denis Villeneuve film Prisoners which is a very atmospheric and gripping thriller about two children kidnapped from their family home on Thanksgiving, but Prisoners had a very unsettling undertone and a real sense of dread throughout, it was dark, gloomy and packed full of mystery and had that been the same in True Story I feel it would have had a bit more of an impact. Instead, I didn’t feel truly connected to either character, I just wanted to know the outcome of the story. Had the directer maybe bumped up its 1 hour, 39 minute run time to 2 hours, he could have delved into the characters a little more and really explored more psychological themes.
Christian Longo murdered his wife and three children and hid the bodies in shallow waters off the Oregon coast. He fled to Mexico and attempted to live under the name Michael Finkel until he was discovered by the FBI and arrested. The real Michael Finkel, who recently was fired from his job at the New York Times, was informed of this identity theft and in his curiosity decided to meet with Longo and find out why he used his name. Having not read the actual book that Finkel published, on which this film is based, I am not sure how accurate the depictions in the film are. However, it would appear that Longo manipulated Finkel into believing that he had a much broader and more complex story to tell. He and Finkel made a deal that Longo will give him his story and Finkel will teach him how to write. Longo had apparently been a long-time admirer of Finkel’s work, which was why he chose his name when on the run in Mexico, he said he just wanted to know what it was like to be him. Longo got what he wanted from Finkel and in return he gave Finkel an extensive letter entitled “Wrong Turns” of all the times he had gone wrong in his life, his scribbles were accompanied by strange drawing and illustrations, seemingly an attempt to seem crazed. Finkel couldn’t get to the bottom of his story and every time he would ask the million dollar question “Did you do it?” Longo was incapable of answering.
What this film did really well was it kept your attention by constantly making you question what is happening. It becomes clear, pretty early on, that Longo is in control of this entire situation, the ball is always in his court but what you don’t know is what really happened that night. He misleads us, along with Finkel, into believing that there is so much more to his story, that maybe his wife murdered the children or that he is covering up for someone else. The idea that he is guilty feels quite distant and at the forefront of your mind is the notion that he is innocent, or he is the victim of a major miscarriage of justice. What with the popular podcast Serial, HBO’s own The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and the new Netflix series Making a Murderer the whole subject of the American judicial system and miscarriages of justice is really popular at the moment so given the current cultural climate, it’s no wonder that this film plays on that a bit and is baiting an audience, already invested in other true stories of the same ilk.
However, the to-ing and fro-ing between Finkel and Longo grows tiresome as Finkel consistently fails to find out the truth and Longo continues to calculate their exchanges until the case goes to trial and Longo’s lawyer reads out his plea. In a bid to confuse the jury, Finkel, the press and the audience Longo plays his plea like it’s part of a bigger plan and even when he is sentenced to death, Longo turns and winks at Finkel like it’s all some big secret only the two of them are privy to. This story is very psychological, Finkel finds something in Longo that he recognizes as they share similar qualities, Longo, who recently declared himself a narcissist, enjoys being at the center of attention, he thrives off it in fact. It becomes clear that he perhaps never did have a broader story to tell but used Finkel to get the press and publishers interested in him.
True Story failed to really drill into these psychological themes and instead lingered on whether or not he killed his family. The addition of Finkel’s wife seemed unnecessary, although well-acted by Felicity Jones, she doesn’t get involved enough in the story for her presence to feel important. However, as the parallels are drawn up between Finkel and Longo’s lives, I think the idea was to feel that perhaps her life was in threat, much like Longo’s wife. I didn’t feel that though.
My biggest problem with this film was the casting of James Franco as Longo and Jonah Hill as Finkel. It is so difficult to take both of these actor seriously in a film together since watching them both in This Is The End. It took some getting used to, especially when the two characters come face to face for the first time, as you know so well that they are close friends in real life and have been in a film together that amplifies that even more so, where they are playing themselves as friends. Separately they are both great actors and in this film they both really carried it because their portrayal of the characters was really brilliant. Franco was excellent at sucking you in with his deep brown eyes and his soft expressions and voice. His emotive face felt like it was really giving it all away, when it would suddenly turn into something more sinister. Jonah Hill was brilliant at playing an asthmatic, struggling writer who just needs a good story to tell to be back in the game. At times you felt sorry for him, but that became more difficult as the film went out and you realize that his motives are purely selfish and he almost deserves what he gets. Putting them both in a serious drama together felt like it could be a great pairing of talented actors, had I not seen This Is The End about a thousand times then I would have probably felt the same way.
True Story is really interesting and the story it is telling is full of twists and turns. Despite my gripes with the techniques used to tell this story and the omission of exploring psychological themes, it kept my attention throughout and up until the final scenes, it kept me guessing. It’s a great film for a Saturday night in front of the telly and there are a few real gut wrenching moments, not enough to leave a lingering sense of dread once the credits roll, but enough to make you wince in the moment.
True Story debuts on Saturday January 30th at 8pm. Check out the trailer below: