Certain films remain with us long after we’ve finished watching them. In some instances, this is because of the tragedy at their heart; in others, because they impart valuable and long-lasting lessons. On other occasions again, it’s because they are, in some way, relatable.
When you consider a movie about a disgraced journalist and a child killer, it may be hard to imagine how it falls into the latter category. Most of us will never be guilty of such heinous crimes, nor will we fabricate convoluted lies to progress our careers.
However, what we will all, on occasion, do is err in some fundamental and regrettable way. This is what makes this not only a true story, but one that is also, in some respects, all too easy to understand and sympathise with.
An unholy alliance
At its core, True Story turns on a simple concept: the relationship and unlikely alliance between two very different characters, both of whom have fundamental credibility issues. Starring James Franco and Jonah Hill, the gripping psychological drama originally began its life on the stage, and it makes for a macabre tale of friendship.
Its primary protagonists are an inarguably strange pair: one is a sociopath beyond redemption; the other, a journalist who fabricated a character to star in one of the biggest and most high-profile stories of his career.
It’s an undeniable example of truth being stranger than fiction. The real-life Michael Finkel, played by Hill, was a New York Times' journalist, while Franco’s Christian Longo was a cold-hearted child killer. The two met following a twist of fate, when the latter went on the run and chose to impersonate the former, whose writings he had long admired.
Rather than being incensed by this act, Finkel, who by the time of this deception had himself been disgraced, chose to get to know Longo, a man whose notoriety far exceeded his own. Making the decision to cosy up to the compulsive liar, he went on to build an odd and enduring bond with a killer who had brutally murdered his own wife and children.
It’s a strange concept to swallow, but it’s the real-life source material behind the film that perhaps make certain parts of it easier to get to grips with. For example, while Longo is arguably irredeemable, Finkel is not. He's made a mistake, but so too have many professionals.
In fact, so common is it for employees to err that most real-life companies have policies in place to protect them against this. One only has to search online, for example, to find providers that specialize in this type of errors and omissions insurance, which has been specially designed to guard against the consequences of any less-than-gold-standard behaviour.
It is therefore Finkel who acts as the human heart of the film, even if his fascination with his fiendish friend is often difficult to understand.
A glimpse into the confessional
What’s particularly interesting about this film is that what begins as an inexplicable alliance soon becomes much easier to grasp. While most people would be horrified to come face-to-face with a criminal as heinous as Longo, Finkel instead sees in him a potential confessor – one who cannot be horrified by the crimes he has committed for his own sins are so much greater.
It’s an odd idea to get to grips with on the surface, but the exceptional acting in the film effortlessly carries the difficulties of its opening moments. Indeed, as long-time friends off-screen, its two protagonists have an easiness between them that translates well into their onscreen interactions, making it much simpler to swallow their casting as unlikely allies.
The work they deliver is some of the finest of their careers. Franco’s criminal, for example, oozes a sinister disregard for his crimes, which include the murders of his wife and children, aged four, three, and two. Hill’s less-than-truthful journalist, on the other hand, is more likeable but no less intriguing.
The method of shooting the two characters in close-up works well too, with much revealed through body language alone. Along with the well-scripted dialogue and fascinating facts at the story’s heart, it makes for incredibly compelling view, with its grand tragedies and inconceivable horrors staying with the audience long after they’ve finished watching.
As far as indie psychological thrillers go, this may very well be one of the finest films that the genre has ever seen, before or since.