Pact between hack and murderer falls flat

Jonah Hill as Mike Finkel and James Franco as Christian Longo in True Story  PA/Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox
Jonah Hill as Mike Finkel and James Franco as Christian Longo in True Story PA/Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox

Based on Michael Finkel’s memoir of the same name, True Story dramatises the real-life Faustian pact between a disgraced journalist and a charming husband, accused of murdering his family.

The game of cat-and-mouse between these two unreliable narrators, who both distort the truth for personal gain, should light the fuse on verbal fireworks in writer-director Rupert Goold’s film.

Unfortunately, the script, co-written by David Kajganich, obscures our view of any pyrotechnics behind billowing smoke and mirrors, including a series of fractured dream-like reminiscences that reduce dramatic momentum to a crawl.

“Sometimes the truth isn’t believable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” coolly observes the accused.

It’s a fair point but the absence of plausibility and verifiable facts makes for a frustrating viewing experience, compounded by the squandering of Oscar nominee Felicity Jones (The Theory Of Everything) in a thankless supporting role.

Celebrated New York Times reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) pens an incendiary feature about contemporary child slavery in the African chocolate trade.

The article makes the cover of the newspaper’s magazine but embarrassing evidence subsequently comes to light that Michael wilfully distorted the facts.

“I said write it up, not make it up,” seethes his editor (Gretchen Mol).

With an indelible stain on his reputation, Finkel returns shame-faced to snow-laden Montana and his wife Jill (Jones).

Soon after, journalist Pat Frato (Ethan Suplee) from The Oregonian contacts Mike for a comment about the recent arrest of Christian Longo (James Franco), a man wanted for the murder of his wife and three children, in Mexico.

“When they apprehended him, he said he was Mike Finkel of The New York Times,” explains Frato.

Intrigued why Longo stole his identity, Finkel visits Christian behind bars and forges a strange bond with the accused.

In exchange for writing lessons, Christian agrees to tell the reporter his version of events leading to the deaths of his wife Mary-Jane (Maria Dizzia) and offspring.

Finkel becomes dangerously fascinated, sensing a chance at redemption if he can exploit his privileged access to Christian for a best-selling book.

“This is a once in a lifetime story!” gushes the writer to his concerned wife.

True Story is structured around several face-to-face encounters between the two protagonists.

Hill plays his part with wide-eyed fascination while Franco remains slippery yet oddly engaging, teasing out some of the facets of Longo’s narcissistic personality disorder. Jones has just two emotionally resonant scenes of note, neither of which gel with the rest of the narrative and render her almost superfluous.

Goold and co-writer Kajganich tread a careful path between legal record and litigious speculation that leaves too many key questions unanswered.

In the hard fought battle for our hearts and suspicious minds, Goold’s film fails to conquer either.

RATING: 5/10