True Story is one of the most emotionally tense movies of the year.
The movie tells the true story — teeheehee! — of journalist Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) and killer Christian Longo (James Franco). Early in the film, Finkel is fired from the New York Times for fabricating a composite character in a story about contemporary African slavery. Later that year, he learns that Longo, taken by the FBI for murdering his wife and three children, was using Finkel’s name when he was taken. Finkel visits Longo in prison and resolves to write a book on him. The film consists of their conversations approaching trial as well as carefully cut montages that promise to reveal the truth behind Longo’s crime.
The film succeeds at the surface level due to intense dialogue, wonderfully unsettling set pieces and sterling performances from its leads and Felicity Jones. Franco is sinisterly melancholy as the accused murderer. Hill gives a subtler, but just as keen a turn, as does Jones as Finkel’s girlfriend, Jill.
Where True Story really gets points, though, is its consistent use of mirrored shots, as well as the direction in general. In many interviews, Finkel and Longo are filmed in shot/reverse shot, but with almost perfectly mirrored postures. Finkel’s face takes up the right side of his shot while Longo’s takes up the left, and their silhouettes are also mirror images of each other. Further, many of these scenes start with wider shots as Finkel grills Longo, then move back to the mirrored shots as they come back into agreement. The mirroring gets even more extreme late in the film when they interact through glass and Longo’s face is overlaid onto Finkel’s.
In between interviews, montages reveal Longo’s thoughts, his memory of the murders and his burgeoning relationship with Finkel. These scenes do a fantastic job of building tension, particularly in the otherwise irrelevant Jill, but they also promise to resolve the purported mystery surrounding Longo’s crimes through flashbacks, and they never do. This unresolved tension gives the film an unsatisfying feeling, despite the fact that the central conflicts within Finkel and between him and Longo are resolved decisively.
The most obvious interpretation, and possibly the correct one, is that Finkel is becoming Longo, whom the film reveals to be a pathological liar, during his identity crisis following his dismissal from the Times, but I’d like to think there’s a lot more to it than that. If that’s the case, the moral of the story is that lying is bad, which is a much easier moral to express than this film is to decode. With such a carefully crafted movie, this lack of payoff in meaning lends to that unsatisfying feel.
There are also themes about the deterioration of journalism and mass murder as a mode of getting attention, though these are less pervasive.
Flipping it around, the unresolved tension also means the movie sticks with you much like a well-done atmospheric horror. However unresolved the film may feel, it is still a thrilling, well-made gem.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. If I get a motorcade when I die, I swear to God, you all had better be doing 85 clear through. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.