The Sundance Film Festival is a place of discovery, where "aha" moments run rampant and stars are born. In freezing cold temperatures and long theater-to-theater commutes, catching those hidden gem screenings is the way to heat up the body, as well as the mind.
"True Story" - starring Jonah Hill and James Franco - could hardly be called a "hidden gem." With buzz going in and a Fox Searchlight distribution plan in place, fans and press alike sardined into the historic Eccles Theater to witness the comedy duo try their luck at tense drama. But sure enough, there was a discovery to be made here. That discovery was first-time feature director Rupert Gould.
Gould masterfully crafts a challenging story with the grace and beats of a longtime veteran. Without revealing too much - because this one has its share of twists and turns - "True Story" is just that: an account of New York Times reporter Mike Finkel's (Hill) conversations with accused murderer Christian Longo (Franco). There's much more to this tale than meets the eye, and Gould is up to the task.
Above all other takeaways, I must acknowledge the very finest acting performance in what has become an impressive body of work for James Franco. I'm no Franco fan, and I went in with (perhaps unwarranted) doubt about his ability to portray a man accused of killing his wife and three young children. I am pleased to admit I was wrong; Franco is an enigma of the first degree, mysterious from act one to act three, but always unraveling hints into an absolutely transfixing character. Did he murder his family? Is he covering up for something else? And how does Jonah Hill's Mike Finkel come into play?
Hill - cast as the brilliant but obsessive Mike Finkel - takes care of business too, but the film belongs to Franco and Gould (with solid supporting work from Oscar nominee Felicity Jones). Gould taps veteran Buck Sanders for a score that never lets up and helps carry a white knuckles thriller. Here, Gould has achieved the always difficult task of turning a dialogue-heavy screenplay into pure tension and intrigue. At times, "True Story" feels almost Fincher-esque, a la "Gone Girl" or "Se7en." Palpable angst filled the room, and an audience of 1200 left the Eccles theater buzzing and bewildered. It's the kind of movie that makes you reevaluate humanity and look into your own personal motivations.
Undoubtedly one of Sundance's most impressive debuts, "True Story" could find its way into awards season conversations, particularly for James Franco's memorable and haunting performance.