Tuesday, March 1, 2016

True Story (2015)

Director: Rupert Goold                                    Writer: Rupert Goold & David Kajganich
Film Score: Marco Beltrame                            Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones and Robert John Burke

I have to say I’m not a fan of Jonah Hill and his stupid movies. By stupid I don’t mean the adjective but instead a kind of film, one that is juvenile and anti-intellectual and has no redeeming value, even entertainment value. James Frnco has made his share of those as well, so . . . not a lot of motivation going in. The sole point of entry for me into this film was Hill’s appearance in Moneyball with Brad Pitt. It was an impressive performance that earned him a supporting actor nomination at the Oscars that year. Then he made the inexplicable choice of appearing in The Wolf of Wall Street--the Martin Scorsese version of a stupid movie, but a stupid movie nonetheless--and was nominated yet again. Fortunately, this film is a serious drama like the former, and so I decided to give it a chance. True Story is . . . the true story of murderer Christian Longo and the disgraced New York Times writer, Michael Finkel, who told his story in the book of the same name. Jonah Hill, as well as the rest of the cast, is very good. Rupert Goold, in his directorial debut is equally good behind the camera as he is in writing the screenplay. The film received mixed reviews, but it seems more than likely this is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what the film was really attempting to do, which was to avoid the clichés and standard tropes typical in this type of story.

The film opens on a Teddy Bear falling into a suitcase in slow motion. Also in the suitcase, as it is being zipped up, is a motionless little girl. The next shot shows the suitcase submerged in water, followed by it being taken on a gurney to the morgue. Even the pathologist is horrified. From there the scene cuts to Jonah Hill in Africa conducting an interview as part of his job for the New York Times. Then things shift to Mexico, with James Franco in a church chatting up a beautiful German tourist. He tells her he’s a journalist for the New York Times--and gives her Jonah Hill’s name as his own--then takes her to his hotel room where the police arrive a short time later. Hill is obviously the real journalist. He is seen at the Times, his editor Gretchen Mol pressuring him to meet a deadline, but when his piece is published it comes out that he made up some of the things that he wrote about and he is fired. At the same time, when the camera cuts back to Franco he is now in prison, while Hill goes home to Montana to lick his wounds. Hill’s wife, Felicity Jones, works for the university, and after she leaves for work Hill tries calling editors but learns that he’s been blackballed because of his unethical behavior. Then a call from an Oregon reporter tells him of Franco’s arrest, how he killed his entire family in Oregon--his wife and three small children--as well as Franco’s use of Hill’s name. So Hill hops the next plane to the Oregon coast.

After meeting the reporter, Hill writes to Franco in prison, asking to meet with him, and he agrees. It turns out Franco has read all of Hill’s work, including the last story, and while he’s been inundated with requests from news organizations, he wants Hill to write about him. Hill later receives a sheaf of papers on which Franco has written his life story and Hill begins to wonder if he is actually innocent of the crime. Then they begin working together on what Hill believes will be a book. The bulk of the film is made up of their discussions together, Hill attempting to get the truth out of Franco, while Franco wants to be taught how to write more creatively. It’s certainly a fascinating story, but all sorts of associations come up, from the jailhouse interviews in Capote or Dead Man Walking, to the kind of cat-and-mouse deception evident in The Mean Season or Primal Fear. Franco makes an incredibly sympathetic murderer, which is exactly how he wants to portray himself to Hill. And Hill, of course, is the perfect person to believe him, a journalist who has been caught in a lie and is desperate to make good with the kind of story--a book no less--that will get him right back into the limelight. It’s an edge of suspense that is exceedingly sublime. Nothing overt, just a sneaking suspicion that clouds the whole relationship between the two for the audience.

Director Rupert Goold has a unique style that is quite interesting. He likes lots of close-ups, but very close, almost the way an independent filmmaker would frame his shots, and uses a lens that distorts the images slightly giving them a subtle fisheye look. The scenes with Franco alone in his cell are punctuated with flashbacks of him with his family, idealized scenes that are atmospheric but give nothing away. The set design is also interesting. Both the newspaper in New York as well as the jail and courtroom in Oregon are a stark white, with the images manipulated to heighten the brightness even further. Hill’s home in Montana, meanwhile, is full of warm earth tones, wood polished to a burnished orange, dark floors and furniture. Despite these manipulations, there’s an overwhelming sense of reality that the picture is imbued with, especially in Goold’s screenplay. The same goes for Robert John Burke who plays a local police officer who wants Hill to cooperate with them before the trial begins. Felicity Jones also does a very nice job of being concerned for Hill’s complete belief in Franco while still refusing to indulge in clichéd negative behaviors with him. In fact, the film is full of subtlety, and that’s what makes it great. It’s not reactionary, but Goold flatly refuses to give in to standard plot and character devices, and in doing so he has made a tremendous work of art that deserves to be understood rather than dismissed. True Story comes highly recommended.

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