True Story follows journalist Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill), fired from The New York Times after falsifying one of his reports. He finds redemption with Christian Longo (James Franco), accused of murdering his wife and three children. Their peculiar relationship ignites when Longo uses Finkel’s name when he’s apprehended by the police. Based off Finkel’s book of these experiences, the film centers on their dynamic and Finkel’s personal sacrifices pursuing the mystery. This narrow focus comes at the cost of female representation within the film. The male voice in True Story controls the feminine narrative through traditional notions of gender identity. Cinematography constructs a domestic space isolating female characters into reserved roles, allowing for manipulation from both Finkel and Longo. When one female character momentarily severs control, plot focus weakens the overall impact. Consequently, the film effectively removes its most compelling theme.
True Story contains two central female characters: Jill Finkel (Felicity Jones) and Mary Jane Longo (Maria Dizzia). The film establishes parallels between these wives similar to those of their husbands, Finkel and Longo. These parallels also entwine the women into a singular identity and thus make their narratives easier to control. One parallel involves the symbolism of death. The two women form a life/death dichotomy; Jill represents life and Mary Jane, having been murdered, represents death. Stylistic elements maintain this separation, such as Mary Jane’s blurred image to create the surrealism of the spiritual realm. However, feminist theory outlines a broader interpretation of death to incorporate women submitting themselves to societal expectations. Such ‘deaths’ include marriage and childbirth. Exploring this interpretation reveals both Jill and Mary Jane as dead characters. Although Mary Jane is physically dead, Jane submits to the metaphorical death of marriage. Death symbolism often juxtaposes with domesticity in scenes featuring Jill, such as the shots of snow submerging her Montana residence. Jill’s job as archivist—handling the documents from the dead—highlights the existence she shares with Mary Jane. Here, the film serves as the male voice, forgoing narrative control to retain the central frame of the male characters.
Each woman succumbs to individualized narrative control from her husband. For Mary Jane, Longo’s dialogue removes her sense of agency and unique identity. After death, her very existence depends on Longo’s retelling of her memory. Audiences view Mary Jane entirely through his flashback, characterized by blurred image and white lighting. The blurred imagery, while segmenting Mary Jane into the spiritual realm, eliminates physical definition. White lighting bathes Mary Jane in the shade of virginal purity. Flashbacks also include her surrounded by nature and their children, locking her within the singular identities of wife and mother. Having this atmospheric setup accentuates Longo’s idealization of her domestic beauty, to which he adapts in accordance with changing circumstances. Toward the end of the film, Longo takes the witness stand and alleges that Mary Jane killed their children following discovery of crippling debt, invoking the hysterical woman stereotype. Longo’s flashbacks render Mary Jane a blank slate, her body and personality becoming casualties of his verbal manipulation. Audiences can accept the contrasting images of “loving wife” and “failed mother,” used by Longo during his testimony, because they only have flashback as evidence. The one time we see Mary Jane outside these flashbacks is the single shot of her on the coroner’s slab; she possesses neither the voice nor gaze to establish herself independent of Longo’s machinations.
Where Longo’s words control Mary Jane’s narrative, Finkel’s actions control the narrative of Jill. Cinematography compliments his actions to isolate her within the domestic space. The film establishes separation early on between these characters. Finkel views life in snowy Montana as representative of his failure as a journalist. His desire to disconnect himself from this stagnant existence manifests spatially. Shots featuring Finkel and Jill place them on opposites sides of the screen, the space between them demonstrating the vast differences in the worlds fashioned for themselves. Space also creates an absence of intimacy, magnified by the wide shots of the desolate Montana landscape. Finkel’s appeal for redemption creates consequences for Jill’s character; she appears sedentary compared to Finkel’s constant traveling. Scenes with Jill rarely leave the Finkel residence, strengthening her connection with the domestic space. She leaves the house for her archival work, but shots of her working in a basement highlight isolation through lack of human contact. Her function in the film is to sustain the domestic space, a responsibility that includes safeguarding Finkel’s sanity. The only close shots of these two characters involve Jill caring for Finkel, seen when she nurses a panic attack and when she leads him out of the courthouse at the conclusion of the film. Jill’s controlled narrative weakens her overall character, the domestic space infantilizing her by dwarfing her within the scene. This idea becomes prominent when she has a phone conversation with Longo. During this talk, Jill locks herself inside the house for safety. She appears frail in the glass windows of her front door and has enclosed herself as if in a coffin. Combined with the mothering acts described earlier, Jill’s comfort in the domestic space continues the parallel between herself and Mary Jane.
Unlike Mary Jane, Jill breaks temporarily from her controlled narrative by approaching Longo directly in prison. Right away, Jill breaks multiple traits associated with her character: she leaves the domestic space, initiates human contact, and forms an intimate setting. Jill asserts herself as the dominant speaker by controlling the flow of conversation, reversing the power structure maintained by Longo. She refuses submission by sustaining eye contact with him as well. One shot has her staring directly at the audience, informing our implicit participation in her narrative manipulation. Finally, she voices to her perspective of Longo’s murders. Jill forces him to listen to a classical piece written by Carlo Gesualdo, a composer who killed his wife and child. Jill purposely employs this composer to reference Longo’s murders, remarking that the music almost forgives his crimes—but never will. Jill assumes control over her own narrative while giving voice to Mary Jane, whose agency was stripped away through death. Sadly, pacing and focus of the film diminish this empowering moment. Jill’s scene lasts a few minutes before transitioning to Longo’s sentencing. The sudden transition reinforces focus on Finkel and Longo’s relationship, making the previous scene feel like a digression. In addition, examining the scene through the lens of domestic responsibility transforms the conversation into another act of caretaking. The subsequent scene provides evidence of this interpretation. Following the trial, Jill places a hand on Finkel’s shoulder to let him know the trial ended, returning her to the role of emotional support. Jill’s empowering moment—and by extension, Mary Jane’s moment—ends as quickly as it started.
A counterargument arises concerning drawing narrative structure from Finkel’s memoir. Since his book centers on his relationship with Longo, it might make sense that the film draws attention away from the feminine narrative. However, one must remember that the catalyst of events comes not from Finkel’s firing or Longo’s identity fraud, but from the murder of a woman and three children. Perhaps the question should not have focused on the sacrifices made between a parasitic relationship, but rather the sacrifices made when we permeate our own voices over those of the dead.
Editor’s note: Check out Wade Sheeler’s different take on True Story here.