Christian Longo (James Franco) is an Oregon man, whose wife and three children have been discovered murdered. About a week later, he is arrested by police in Mexico. There, Christian claims he is a reporter for the New York Times named Michael Finkel.
In New York City, Finkel (Jonah Hill) is an ambitious and successful reporter. He is confronted by his editors, who accuse him of partially fabricating a story which appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine. Although Finkel attempts to defend his actions, he is fired. He returns home to Montana, where his wife, Jill (Felicity Jones), lives. Finkel struggles to find work, but is unsuccessful, due to his dismissal from the Times.
Finkel is contacted by a reporter for The Oregonian, who is seeking his opinion on Christian Longo's theft of his identity. Finkel, who was not even aware of Longo's actions, is intrigued. Finkel arranges to meet with Longo in prison. During their first conversation, Longo claims that he has followed Finkel for his entire career and that he is fascinated by his writing. Longo agrees to tell Finkel his side of the story, in exchange for writing lessons, and Finkel promising his silence.
Finkel becomes increasingly absorbed by Longo, who is continually evasive about his guilt. Convinced that Christian’s story will be redemptive, Finkel continues to meet with and correspond with Longo over several months. Finkel receives numerous letters from Longo, including an eighty page volume entitled "Wrong Turns". It contains what Longo describes as a list of every mistake he has made in his life. Finkel notices increasing similarities between the two men, including parallels between the styles of writing and drawings in Longo's letters and Finkel's personal journals. As the case is soon to go to trial, Finkel becomes increasingly doubtful of Longo's guilt. Longo tells Finkel that he intends to plead not guilty, and that he did not kill his family.
At the plea hearing, Longo pleads not guilty to two of the murders, but pleads guilty to the murder of his wife and one of his daughters. Confused, Finkel confronts Longo, who claims that he has to protect certain individuals, who he refuses to name. Greg Ganley (Robert John Burke), a detective who tracked Longo down, approaches Finkel. He claims that Longo is an extremely dangerous and manipulative man. Ganley attempts to convince Finkel to turn over all of the correspondence the two have shared as evidence. Finkel refuses, citing journalistic integrity and the promise that he made to Longo.
At the trial, Longo takes the stand and describes his version of the events. He claims that, after an argument with his wife about financial struggles, he came home to discover two of his children missing, one of his daughters unconscious, and his wife sobbing, saying that she put the children "in the water". Longo says that he then strangled his wife to death in a blind rage, and performed a mercy killing on his daughter afterwards. During his testimony, he makes several references to things that Finkel had taught him during his writing lessons.
Longo is found guilty of all charges and sentenced to death. As he is sentenced, he smiles and winks at Finkel. Finkel, to his shock and rage, realizes that Longo has been telling lies the entire time, merely using him in order to make his testimony more believable. A short time later, Finkel meets Longo on death row. Longo attempts to convince Finkel that he discovered his wife strangling their daughter and then blacked out, having no memory of the murders. Finkel, seeing through the story, angrily tells Longo that he will not believe any more of his lies. He also says that he will warn the judge at the upcoming appeal of Longo's manipulative nature. Longo retorts by pointing out the success Finkel has had with his book, leaving Finkel shaken.
Finkel reads a section of his book, entitled True Story, at a promotional event. Taking questions from the audience, he hallucinates Longo standing in the back of the room. Longo states that, if he has lost his freedom, Finkel must have lost something as well. Finkel is unable to respond.
Title cards reveal that although Finkel never wrote for the New York Times again, Longo has had several of his writings on death row published by the paper.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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Christian Longo (James Franco) is arrested in Mexico after supposedly killing his wife and daughters. While being arrested, he claims that he is Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), a writer for the New York Times. After being told about the identity theft by a reporter, Finkel becomes intrigued by Christian and goes to meet with him in prison. Christian claims that he is innocent. After several meetings, Finkel begins to believe Christian’s innocence.
When the case goes to trial, Christian gets up and tells his version of the story. He claims that he killed his wife and mercy-killed his daughter, after finding out his wife killed their other two daughters. Christian is sentenced to death.
While being taken into custody, Christian smiles and winks at Finkel, proving that Christian has been lying to Finkel about being innocent the whole time. Finkel writes a book, entitled “True Story”, and while reading from his book at an event, he hallucinates Christian standing in the back of the room. The end titles reveal that Finkel never wrote for the New York Times again, but that Christian has had several of his writings on death row published by the Times.
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