True Story is a true crime tale drained of all its blood, the events of which pass by like the landscape on a 99-minute train ride through the country. Some of what you may see is going to be beautiful, but always at a distance.
Maybe that’s down to Jonah Hill’s most humorless dramatic performance to date. Like the movie, there’s a technical proficiency to what he does, but at the expense of his natural charm. Here he plays Mike Finkel, a disgraced, former New York Times columnist reeling from a falsified article on child slavery that throws years of credibility into question. During his dark night of the soul he discovers that a suspected murderer was using his name as an alias while hiding out in Mexico. As intrigued as Finkel may be by the basic facts of the case, the inexplicable connection to a high profile murder trial proves too tempting to pass up in this period of creative wallowing, so he makes Christian Longo (Franco) his full-time project.
The most interesting story arc should be Finkel’s—his professional interest in the case clashing with his morals and whatnot—but that’s a story we’ve already seen in Capote, which also has the benefit of being “true.” Instead we get some philosophical pussyfooting between Hill and Franco, all of which feels like a calculated game of chess rather than anything soul rending. The movie takes a few weak stabs at the similarities between Finkel and Christian Longo—both at a low point in their lives, both seeking possible redemption from one another, both having shared the same name (albeit briefly) and most eerily, the same note-taking styles—but it’s all squandered by the time Franco drones, “we’re not so different, you and I.” Yeah. No shit.
Up until that point, Franco is non-offensive as Christian Longo, the man accused of murdering his entire family, stuffing them into suitcases and dropping them in an icy Oregon river. His Longo is sleepily polite, a charming sociopath who knows more about Dr. Suess than double negatives. A lot of Franco’s oldest acting chops are getting a workout here, his sleepy eyes suggesting a detachment that could be deranged apathy or maybe something sadder.
Mostly, this movie got me thinking about how “entertaining” true crime stories are meant to be and why this isn’t more…like that. This feels like someone took all of the good parts out of Primal Fear out of respect for the victims. That may have been the right thing to do, but the movie suffers as a result.