Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 18, 2015 2:09 pm 
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Banality of evil, again

True Story takes on material arguably dealt with once and for all by Truman Capote: the gruesome murder of a family, explored by a writer who develops a dangerous intimacy with the accused. Rupert Goold, a respected English theater director in his first outing at the helm of a feature film, has adapted the memoir of Michael Finkel about Christian Longo (and himself). It's a shocker, in its way, even if it doesn't have the complexity of In Cold Blood. We have to wonder if Jonah Hill and James Franco, comedic talents, buddies in real life, are ideally cast. They can't do what they're best at, and they don't have the acting technique to imbue their relatively opaque roles with subtlety. But is there subtlety to be had here? That's another question. It is an unusual story, anyway.

Hill plays Michael Finkel, the memoir's author. We learn that he has had ten New York Times magazine cover stories in six years. But the latest one, about child slavery in Africa, leads to his dismissal and disgrace, because he has presented a composite of multiple men's experience as if it happened to one person, whose portrait is on the magazine cover. (I longed for more investigation of this than the quick, dismissive scene set at the Times depicting Finkel's exposure and downfall.) Finkel returns to what looks like a spacious ranch house in Montana, where he has a distant relationship with his girlfriend Jill (Felicity Jones). Then we join Chris Longo, suspected killer of his wife and three young children, on the run in Mexico, and giving the name "Michael Finkel" as his own. After Longo is apprehended and taken back to prison in Oregon, this odd homage brings writer and accused murderer together.

Finkel begged the Times not to air his apology, but they do, and so he is persona non grata in the journalistic world, and no publication will hire him to do the various stories he pitches. So he talks to Longo, his ingratiating admirer, who insists on his innocence but hints he is covering for somebody, but will reveal all only to Finkel, if he will keep it secret till after the trial. Finkel decides this must be a book, not an article, and he pitches it to Harper Collins, with a positive response. Finkel consents to teach Longo to write in exchange for answers to his questions, and the prisoner turns out a lot of handwritten pages with little drawings. Finkel shows them to his Jill, exclaiming at how similar Longo's handwriting is to his own. There are other links. When Finkel plays a free association game with Longo and gives the word "liar," Longo unhesitatingly writes "Mike" as Finkel writes "Chris." But while these jailhouse meetings are fully of ironic little twists and hints of intertwined souls, Chris reveals little, and we are left largely in the dark about what all those manuscript pages from his prison pal tacked up on Mike's wall contain. All we know is that Harper Collins offers him a $200,000 advance.

Then things go bad for Mike, because when the trial comes, Chris doesn't behave as expected. There are surprises, in which Chris gets the movie limelight and Finkel relatively fades from view, except for a couple of meetings with a prosecutor with whom his relationship changes. At this point Jill has a couple of contacts with Chirs, one by phone, another in person, which add a little complexity to her part -- and show up how relatively mechanical Hill and Franco are. The many extreme closeups of dp Masanobu Takayanagi notwithstanding, Franco is simply neutral, blandly blank. Perhaps his performance shows us the banality of evil. But in the event, a movie demands something more -- the deviousness of a con artist, the masked guilt of a conflicted murderer -- that he lacks the chops to convey. All that emerges is a degree of narcissism. Likewise Hill can't deliver a sense of the passion and shrewdness of a talented investigative journalist. He comes across as dogged, but too naive. Goold's direction, otherwise, is well handled, avoiding a too-great sense of staginess despite the many one-on-one jailhouse meetings. In the end Finkel's memoir seems self-serving, and the portrait of a cheating ‚Äčjournalist's disgrace gets short shrift compared to Billy Ray's more in depth Shattered Glass. True Story is interesting material, but the movie feels like a composite (like Finkel's doomed cover story, perhaps) made up of bits of other, more memorable tales. Not a mincer of words, Armond White calls this movie "a new kind of terrible"! If not that bad, it's still a missed opportunity.

True Story, 100 mins., debuted at Sundance 27 Januarey 2015; opened US and Canada 17 April; UK release coming 24 July.

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