Twenty years ago, Tim Robbins tackled the issue in Dead Man Walking. Ten years ago, it was Bennett Miller in Capote. Now, Rupert Goold has taken it on in True Story. The unifying issue in all three movies concerns the relationship between a murderer and another character who would serve as confessor, advisor, perhaps even friend. In all three cases, the story focuses on that friend, probing how such a relationship affects him or her.
I liked the movies Robbins and Miller made. I was significantly disappointed in Goold’s.
This might begin with the element of tone. All three movies go to very dark places and explore senseless, horrific crimes. But in Susan Sarandon’s Sister Helen Prejean (in Dead Man Walking) and in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote (Capote) – both Oscar-winning performances – the first two films had central characters who breathed life and energy and humour into the grim material. True Story offers none of that. Goold, and all of his actors, seem intent on remaining as morose and languid as possible.
But tone is not the biggest problem in True Story. The biggest problem stems from the fact that it wants to completely eschew narrative for character, and the characters it presents simply aren’t that interesting.
To put the narrative to bed quickly: True Story could have been somewhat of a thriller. There is, after all, a murder trial, and though the facts of the case seem pretty apparent, there is always the possibility of a deeper story beneath the surface. But Goold shows no interest in this, perhaps because there really wasn’t a deeper story to be told. The facts of the case are not complicated or revelatory in any way. What you expect to happen does happen, unless you were expecting some sort of twist. In a way, this is laudable, since such twists in legal thrillers are often ludicrous. Just one simple example of Goold’s disregard for traditional narrative: The murderer in the story, Christian Longo, takes the stand in his own defence and offers a patently ludicrous explanation of his actions. (This, after the script hints at some sort of subterfuge on the brilliant Longo’s part – a subterfuge that never materialises.) When he is done with his tale, his attorney gets to say the dramatic cliché “The defence rests.” He is never cross examined. Such a cross examination had the potential to be the most dramatic thing in the movie, but it is simply ignored. The screenplay, also by Goold and David Kajganich, employs similar narrative ellipses throughout.
The reason there is no cross examination on screen is because this is designed to be an all-encompassing relationship story between Michael Finkel, a disgraced New Times reporter, and Longo, who has been accused of murdering his family. The fact that Longo had been using Finkel’s name and identity for a period of time before his arrest is what brings the two men together, though I don’t believe there is any meaning to this fact beyond their symbolic symbiosis. The majority of the movie is built on the conversations the two men have in which they share details of their lives. Your involvement in the movie largely depends on how involving you find these scenes. They were by no means unwatchable, but for me, they became less interesting and more forced as time went on. In short, they became boring.
There was nothing that grabbed attention in their chats – nothing remotely like the astonishing single take conversation between prisoner Michael Fassbender and priest Liam Cunningham in Hunger. When Finkel does speak with others about his increasingly odd relationship with an accused murderer, there is nothing that comes close to the powerhouse interaction between Susan Sarandon and Raymond Barry as the murdered boy’s father in Dead Man Walking. This is the sandbox True Story is attempting to play in, and it doesn’t live up to similar attempts that have come before.
Maybe the biggest problem in True Story is the casting of Jonah Hill as Finkel. I have read some positive reviews of his performance, but it seemed to me he was severely overmatched. I didn’t believe him as the gonzo, self-important reporter in the opening sequences, nor did I really believe his breakdown scenes. Hill clearly has talent, and he has moved well beyond his early comic roles. But he still has a sidekick persona, and at this point, he is best suited toward playing slightly exaggerated support, be it the hyper-shy Peter Brand to Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane in Moneyball or the hyper-blustery Donnie Azoff to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. Here, Hill is asked to do the heavy lifting, and he doesn’t seem up to it.
But part of his problem may come from Goold’s direction. It seems to me that Goold realised he didn’t have much in the way of a story, so he pulled out other cinematic stops in an effort to give life to the material. Some of these efforts succeed. There are a number of arresting images, from the very first shot of a teddy bear falling into a suitcase, to multiple ominous northwestern landscapes. Marco Beltrami’s music is put to good effect throughout as well. But with his actors, Goold seems to be asking them to stretch in ways that don’t always work. Felicity Jones gets a would-be tour de force scene in which she confronts Longo late in the movie. The scene is highly theatrical in its conception, and Jones delivers her soliloquy with over-emphasised pronunciations and odd cadence that make the entire scene awkward. In the end, the potentially powerhouse moment comes off as stilted, and ultimately less effective than the much simpler speech offered by the judge (Byron Jennings) when sentencing Longo. Of the main players, James Franco (as Longo) and Robert John Burke (as an investigator for the prosecution) are the only ones who seem totally comfortable with what Goold is asking them to do.
True Story is based on Mike Finkel’s book about his true-life encounter with convicted murderer Christian Longo. Goold deserves credit for keeping his film honest, without resorting to narrative tricks in an effort to juice things up. The problem is that what he is attempting has been done substantially better before.