With the suspense of a murder mystery and the thematic depth of a work of literature, “True Story” packs a lot into 100 minutes. Although it features familiar comedy co-stars Jonah Hill and James Franco, it would be inaccurate to write this off as just two comedy goofs trying to star in a serious film. “True Story” has weight and nuance, and Franco delivers a truly brilliant performance.
Based on Michael Finkel’s memoir “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa,” the story begins when Finkel (Jonah Hill), a recently fired New York Times reporter, discovers that a murder suspect (James Franco) has assumed his identity. What follows is a twisting narrative that brings up questions of integrity, the self and the possibility of never knowing the absolute truth.
Throughout the film, viewers are constantly forced to ask questions: Did Franco’s character really kill his wife and three children, seemingly for no reason? Franco’s expertly nuanced performance makes this question nearly impossible to answer. He plays suspected killer Chris Longo with a subdued calm that could either belong to a grieving, innocent man or a manipulative, calculating murderer. He never shows his hand or gives himself away, which is both frustrating and extremely compelling.
At one point during one of the murder trial scenes, Franco delivers a long, stirring monologue that throws any remaining associations with his usual role as the amusing deliverer of slapstick humor out the window. His emotions — guilt, detachment, confusion, regret — are intricately balanced in a very human, real way, and his testimony feels completely organic.
Still, the more you hear his low, almost whispered voice and see his dead eyes, the more sinister Franco’s character appears. By the end, just seeing him is enough to make viewers feel physically unsettled and even a bit ill. The fact that his character is so well-developed makes it even creepier: He could easily be your neighbor or the man sitting behind you, and you might never know.
The rest of the characters are developed, but not to the same extent. Jonah Hill does an admirable job portraying the moral struggles and frustrations Finkel encounters, but he doesn’t have any breakout memorable moments. Felicity Jones, fresh off her success in “The Theory of Everything,” delivers a spectacular monologue in her supporting role, but the metaphorical tie-in introduced by her character seems a little bit forced.
In terms of plot, the murder mystery aspect creates a very delicate suspense that becomes more and more urgent as the film progresses. The story drops just the right number of clues to allow the viewer a glimpse at the truth, but not enough to give anything away until the very end. When the answer finally comes together, suddenly each piece makes sense, and viewers almost feel like they can solve it.
The multiple interlocking themes allow for levels of interpretation and analysis usually only found in books. Its meditations on truth — journalistic truth versus dramatic truth, painful truth versus harmless lie — and how we can ever know what’s really true are poignant and timely. The characters deal with love, loyalty and integrity as well, though those themes are less integral to the plot.
Visually, the film shows nothing very stylistically impressive. It is a little heavy on dramatic, moodily lit profile shots of Franco’s face and schmaltzy flashbacks of his once happy family life. Though alternating between shots of Hill’s character and Franco’s sometimes provides interesting parallels between the lives of their characters, the technique gets old very quickly and seems like it is trying too hard to demonstrate the obvious similarities between the two men. That being said, the camera angles take a variety of human details into account, paying attention to even the smallest nervous hand gesture, and some of the close-up shots of Franco were necessary to convey his fantastic face acting.
What the film lacks visually, though, it more than makes up for with its music. One of the highlights of the film is the subtle and effective score — no surprise, since it’s coming from Academy Award-nominated composer Marco Beltrami. The reliance on strings and use of dissonance expertly build tension as the storyline progresses, and you can clearly see Beltrami’s background in horror films coming into play here. As the suspense in the movie ramps up, so does the score.
The movie closes with an epilogue that gives a few real-life details about the case and its aftermath. This common device seems a little unnecessary, but it makes the film feel a lot more complete and offers a sense of closure.
“True Story” is suspenseful and generally very well-done — memorable since it’s grounded in true events. This engaging storyline was a predictably easy success. Apart from the plot, it is Franco’s atypically serious performance that makes this movie worth watching.
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