The white guy sits uneasily, sweating as he takes notes. He’s interviewing a number of young black men, young black African men. The white guy, Michael (Jonah Hill), can’t understand them, and so he works through a translator, to whom he looks repeatedly. The sound of his pen scratching competes with his breathing, as he asks about their brutal treatment as slaves. It’s okay, he tells the kids, “I’m from the New York Times,” holding up an identity badge they won’t be able to read. When that doesn’t work, he pulls out money, insisting that he needs to see the scars on at least one kid’s back before he takes off.
The scene comes early in True Story, setting up immediately the title’s irony. Based on the real life Michael Finkel’s memoir, the movie establishes right away that he’s a liar, but also that the movie tends to slick visual shorthands, cues that suggest as much. As you watch Mike here, his neck moist and his eyes shifty, you know he’ll be caught and so too, you know he’ll seek redemption. His journey will be yours, and you already know where you’re going. It’s five minutes into the movie.
Mike’s vehicle for redemption is another liar, Chris Longo (James Franco). His offenses are much, much worse than Mike’s, you also know already, because he’s murdered a little girl, packed her into a suitcase, and dropped her off a bridge into deep water. This fellow picks up a pretty German tourist for a one-night in Mexico, and as she lays across the bed in their hotel room, naked and dead-looking, a situation made more disturbing as Chris looks out on the street from the balcony and sees that a detective has arrived to pick him up. That you see all this before Mike even hears of Chris means that you’re inclined to worry for Mike when they meet, perhaps especially because you know of their peculiar connection, that is, the killer has been using Mike’s name while on the run from authorities.
By the time Longo is picked up, Mike is already deep into his own psychic troubles. As much as his lovely wife Jill (Felicity Jones) insists that they’ll be fine, that she can take on extra hours at the library where she works or even teach a class, Mike is living with his failure, his lost reputation, and his fast receding future. Chris, meanwhile, is in prison, charged with murdering his three children and his wife. As the two men begin their relationship, the film offers familiar images and ideas: they meet in a prison interview, Chris in an orange jumpsuit, his hands re-cuffed after each engagement, his eyes probing as he informs Mike he wants to learn how to write, how to use words, as he’s so long admired his work. Mike, in turn, sits across from his subject, his notepad ready, his questions cagey.
This boys’ relationship forms the bulk of True Story‘s emotional trajectory, driven by their mutual parrying, lying, and challenging of one another’s stakes in their contest. The film fills in some background — shared and unshared between the two storytellers — with looks at their family lives, Chris’ appearing in gauzy home-movie style flashbacks showing beautiful children and a smiling wife. Jill appears at home, sometimes with Mike but as often alone, wandering through his office, gazing at the charts and drawings and letters he’s gleaned from Chris. Her face, revealed in haunting close-ups, ensures that you know the men’s friendship isn’t quite professional, that Mike’s investment is a function of his own troubles.
As Jill becomes your moral compass, and you see that Mike is increasingly lost, you’re not so impressed by his efforts to control the narrative, to maintain his access to his career-saving scoop. As he drives off for extended periods, to conduct interviews or to attend the trial proceedings, the long shots of his car on empty roads both ooky and banal, Jill remains at home — until she doesn’t. The film’s most unconvincing effort at a payoff has her expressing herself at last, not to Mike but to Chris. As she confronts Chris across the same table where you’ve seen Mike sit so often and for so long, you see what he hasn’t seen and she understands immediately. It’s not that Jill speaks a truth you haven’t known already. Rather, she intervenes in the men’s and the movie’s not-so-delicate storytelling, underlining what’s obvious.
Jill’s intervention is not so much a plot turn that salvages Mike’s conscience or even makes clear Chris’ depravity. It is, however, a moment designed for you (that it’s the girl — the one who isn’t dead — who embodies this moment is its own cliché). The plot turn she enacts allows Jill a brief possible satisfaction, calling out the monster and defending her vulnerable husband. But this moment is designed so that you might feel assured in your own reading, in your own capacity to glean truth, in your self-image, that what you know is what the movie knows. It makes the truth awkward and emphatic, so that you might feel redeemed.