Jonah Hill puts on his thick-rimmed glasses again as Mike Finkel, a prominent writer for The New York Times that was disgraced for fabricating stories. James Franco unleashes his full on creeper-mode, and plays Christian Longo, one of the most publicized murderers of the last 20 years.
Christian Longo slaughtered his wife and three kids, fled to Cancun to start anew with a different identity – Mike Finkel’s. He is promptly captured, and thus begins the curious friendship between the journalist and the murderer. Shrouded in mystery and gory details, the film paints a bleak picture of how the world would react in the face of pure evil.
The timeline of the murders are never made clear. The only full account of the event was Christian’s testimony, and the purpose of his retelling was to strike doubt into our minds. While by the end of the film there is no doubt that Christian was responsible for the death of his family, the reaching of this conclusion felt insufficient for the drama we’ve witnessed, which speaks to exactly what the rest of the film felt like.
The film is unfocused and overwrought. Finkel and Longo shared – and continue to share in real life – one of the strangest bonds two humans can have. How can you become friends with a murderer, knowing exactly what he’s done – even beyond reasonable doubt? The film skims the surface of this deeply complex relationship while simultaneously spreading its fingers over the trial and Chris’ conviction, it fails to show us exactly what makes this film interesting: Why Chris and Mike are drawn to each other.
Jonah Hill and James Franco are fantastic in their roles, and give us great range despite how thin the script is. Felicity Jones – while a lovely addition to the cast – seemed unnecessary for most of the movie, and only earns her keep in the one scene where she confronts Chris.
We saw Chris through Mike’s eyes, and just like Mike, we were desperate for a reason to believe Chris was innocent. After all, innocent until proven guilty, and this entire case was drenched with contradicting details and doubt. We were never given damning evidence until the trial. Accusations of anything otherwise came straight out of left field, and Mike’s awfully slow realization that Chris is exactly the monster everyone else he thought he was, felt forced and unconvincing. For a journalist who was committed to finding the truth, he sure was slow on the uptake.
We never truly understand Chris’ motive for murdering his family, and the only explanation for it is that he’s sociopath, a cruel monster who dragged those who loved him into the ground. However, that by itself isn’t enough. The truth is much more complex. The film paints the picture of a normal man, with a normal life, until inexorable circumstances in his life drove him to insanity. He’s charming, he’s handsome, and more than all of that, he’s remorseful for what had happened. That simply cannot be the case. The film hints at the underlying evil, the black void where his human emotions would be, but neglects to show us. We only get a tiny window frame into the life of a monster after he was caught.
He didn’t wake up one day with the devil on his shoulder. It’s been there all his life.
The movie makes a noble effort to retell the “true story” for the big screen, but bites off more than it can chew. While it’s aesthetically pleasing to the eye, it’s a dull knife to the brain – the film feels incomplete and shallow. After all that has been said and done, what we got just seemed like a neutered version of the truth.