In theaters Friday, April 17
3 stars (out of 4 stars)
Attention, true crime addicts desperate for a new fix after Serial and The Jinx: This riveting and highly disturbing chiller will satiate your needs.
This tale, in fact, is so peculiar that after its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, some audience members murmured whether this was a work of fiction. It’s not. (See: The title of the film.)
Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) is a reporter with a high-profile job churning out cover stories for the New York Times magazine. But in 2001, he’s caught fabricating parts of an article and gets fired. On the day he retreats to his home in rural Montana, he receives a phone call from a reporter from an Oregon newspaper asking for a comment about . . . Christian Longo (James Franco). The man was just arrested for brutally killing his wife and three kids — and, as a fugitive in Mexico, he forged a fake identity as New York Times reporter Michael Finkel.
The disgraced journalist can’t help but scratch his curiosity itch and pens Longo a letter asking for an explanation (“Maybe you could tell me what’s it like to be me?”). Much to his surprise, Longo writes back and cops to being a huge fan of his work. The correspondence leads to jailhouse visits. The visits lead to a friendship. The friendship leads to an unsettling deal: Finkel will teach the inmate how to become a stronger writer, and Longo will tell him the truth about how his family died. (Alas, the legal ramifications aren’t addressed.)
Finkel, looking to restore his reputation from the Times’ debacle, puts his faith in Longo and his version of events. He longs to believe that Longo — a clean-cut guy who looks him directly in the eye and insists he loved his children — is telling it like it is about his innocence. No possible way this devoted family man is capable of stuffing his wife and daughter in suitcases and throwing them off a bridge. (The other two kids were also allegedly thrown from a bridge.) But the closer the emotionally vulnerable Finkel gets to his new confidant, the more he fears he’s just falling prey to a master con artist. Leave it to Franco, who’s carved out quite a niche playing slippery characters, for wringing intrigue out of a single wink of an eye.
He and Hill have a storied history together in the Judd Apatow school of comedy, of course. But that real-life fraternal chemistry serves them well here: The bond feels genuine, and their intense conversations have an electric charge. Besides, keep in mind that for all their onscreen hijinks over the past decade, they’ve also racked up three Oscar nominations between them.
Still, it’s lovely Felicity Jones, as Hill’s worried wife Jill, who owns the most powerful moment with Franco. On the sidelines for most of the film, she comes forward during a jailhouse visit in which she uses the tale of a 16th century composer — who murdered his wife and baby — to expose Longo as the killer she knows he is. There’s some irony in knowing that the confrontation was invented for dramatic purposes (Finkel wasn’t even married during his ordeal), but it’s a mesmerizing drop-the-mic moment.
Just don’t hold out for a tidy and climactic Robert-Durst-like bathroom confession. Longo is a true psychopath, and he’s too lost in his own house of lies.