The real-life dramatization "True Story" centers on two "caught" souls — a disgraced journalist (Jonah Hill) and a captured murder suspect (James Franco) — who embark on a psychological duel, pitted against each other's need for redemption.
This adaptation of Michael Finkel's 2005 book about his admittedly self-serving encounters with accused child-killer Christian Longo promised a crackling engagement with Janet Malcolm's famous "confidence man" theory of journalism, and the pitfalls of reporting stories without telling stories (to yourself, to a subject or to readers). Unfortunately this "Story" never finds its footing as either a creepy morality play or a performance-driven two-hander.
In 2002 Finkel was a star New York Times reporter until a celebrated article was exposed as partly fabricated. (He created a fictional African boy protagonist for a modern slave-trading story out of interviews with several children.) Drummed out of town and licking his wounds at the Montana residence he shares with his wife (Felicity Jones), Finkel soon learns that an Oregon man arrested in Mexico in connection with the killing of his spouse and three kids had been using Finkel's name.
Convinced he'd found a memoir-like comeback and apologia — turning his jail interviews with a "false" Michael Finkel into a book on soul-searching and identity — Finkel embarks on a treacherous bargain with a serenely manipulative man: Finkel asks for honesty from Longo in exchange for a writing tutorial and publication of Finkel's work after the trial.
The film's director, Rupert Goold, credited as co-screenwriter with David Kajganich, hails from British theater, and it's easy to see why he'd be attracted to such mano a mano material. But until he gets hungry, bespectacled Hill and calm, orange-jumpsuited Franco in an antiseptic white jail room together, there's a lot of perfunctorily handled and strangely distancing parallel-lives setup: moody shots of Finkel's loneliness in snowy Montana, arty re-creations of details pertaining to the horrific killings.
Ultimately, the audience has way too much time to realize the narcissistic folly of Finkel's exercise in forcing spiritual "we're both sinners!" kinship with someone who in all likelihood dropped two of his children off a bridge, and we henceforth don't buy a single thing the coolly smiling Longo has to say.
That's not to imply the leads aren't good or occasionally compelling; they're just obvious. Rather than drop us into the middle of a "Silence of the Lambs"-style battle of wills, which the movie's general milieu clearly suggests, we're stuck watching a slanted mental wrestling match and wondering why Finkel can't see through Longo. Meanwhile, Jones' character's big moment — visiting Longo in jail to let him know she's onto him — is well handled but feels like it was written to give a fine actress something to play.
Franco does nail the movie's best scene, however: Longo's testimony on the stand. After so much did-he-or-didn't-he treatment of the murders, we get a version of the night in question and a slice of Longo that bristles with cold reality and grim unknowingness. Freed from potboiler-ish gamesmanship, "True Story" finally gives us a dispatch from the abyss, and it unsettles as it should.
MPAA rating: R for language, disturbing material
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes