The elusive bird of truth flies with intriguing, if wavering, purpose in this so-called True Story. Here’s the setup: Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), a New York Times reporter dismissed for fudging facts in a story about child slavery in Africa, decides to revive his career and restore his reputation by writing a book based on his jail interviews with Christian Longo (James Franco), accused of murdering his wife and three children. It seems Longo, while on the run in Mexico, had adapted Finkel’s identity as a way to elude FBI capture. Maybe these two men could learn something about each other through their talks. Maybe even find redemption.
So far, so factual. The premise sparked esteemed British stage director Rupert Goold to make True Story his debut feature film. The mood he creates is eerie and compelling, contrasting the homey Montana cottage Finkel shares with his wife (the wonderful but wasted Felicity Jones) and Longo’s sterile Oregon prison environs. It’s troublesome when the script that Goold and co-writer David Kajganich carved out of Finkel’s book starts taking liberties of its own, such as a prison visit Finkel’s wife makes to Longo. Maybe the point is we never know who or what to believe. But too many maybes are hell on sustaining tension. What pulls us in are the performances of Franco and Hill, who know how to hold and reward the camera’s tight scrutiny. They play a riveting game of cat-and-mouse.