Destined to provoke divisiveness in the best possible way8/10
"True Story" concerns Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), a respected journalist for "The New York Times" who has made a name for himself with numerous front-page articles. When he takes his latest piece, concerning contemporary African slave trading, and deeply obscures specific details about his subjects, he is fired from his job and his reputation is tarnished. While residing in the middle of nowhere with his wife, Michael receives word that his likeness has been used by a man named Christian Longo (James Franco), who is convicted of killing his wife and their three children. Michael travels to prison to meet and talk with Christian, who he is stunned to find is a soft-spoken, frightened soul with a story to tell of his own. After learning of Christian's own personal perspective of the murders, Michael begins to write a book on him, finding himself caught between a wedge of believing Christian's story but also looking at indisputable facts of the case.
Right off the bat, it's odd to see both Jonah Hill and James Franco in a film together and not creating a raunchy, ribald atmosphere. While both men have ventured into drama before (especially Franco, who is, dare I say, the most diverse actor in Hollywood), having these two men work together and not drum up any laughs is a strange thing to note. However, this fact becomes less apparent when we remember, and it only takes moments to do so once the film begins, how great Hill and Franco are at playing complex, layered dramatic roles. Hill's straight-forward seriousness combined with Franco's mannered eloquence creates a story that works from the start on the basis of actor chemistry and effectiveness alone.
The film bears a strong resemblance to Truman Capote's book "In Cold Blood," as we watch a journalist get so invested in the lives of a murderer who winds up developing tunnel vision so narrow that he can't see the obvious guilt and manipulation around him. Michael becomes wrapped up with finding out who Christian really is as a person, enthralled by his perspective, which has been muted by what seems to be sensational headlines and news reports, that he simply wants to get to the heart of his subject. Yet, when we see a family completely broken and another telling his side of the story, not really justifying his actions nor explicitly denying them, we become entangled in a web of conflicting testimonies.
To respond to "True Story" in a manner of confusion is only natural; if anything, you're exhibiting conflicting attitudes the real life Michael Finkel probably did when he met Christian Longo and spoke with him over time. The film subtly answers the questions of truth and examines how perspective and stories, when told rather than pushed aside or muted, do not justify an entire situation, especially one so heinous, but work to complicate it and leave no questions easily answered. We become just as entangled as Michael, and when the film ends, ostensibly without progressing a whole lot, we find ourselves left to our own vices in terms of how we analyze what we just watched.
"True Story" is destined to be one of the most underrated and misunderstood pictures of the year, and the latter because of the fact that there are going to be a barrage of ways one can digest this film. Some have criticized the film for seemingly rooting for the redemption of Christian before doubling back in the concluding trial scenes, yet consider how Michael views him throughout the entire film. He clearly wants the man to redeemed if he had done anything wrong, and tries to believe that he has a troubled, deeply confused soul in his company. However, facts catch up and it is then we realize what we're dealing with, and that's one of the reasons "True Story" is so special; it leads us one way, gets us believing one thing, before calling us on our bluff and letting our guard down.