Truman Capote was already a household name in 1959, having written “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” when he boarded a train to Holcomb , Kansas to investigate the brutal massacre of a farm family by two drifters. What began as research for an article for New Yorker magazine turned into a 6-year self-destructive ordeal culminating in the publishing of his seminal true-crime novel “In Cold Blood” (which was itself made into a movie starring Robert Blake in 1967). “In Cold Blood” was Capote’s greatest work and, ironically, the last book he ever finished.
Directed by Bennett Miller in his debut, “Capote” is an unflinchingly examination of this particular episode in Capote’s life. The film opens with Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Talented Mr. Ripley”) and his childhood friend and fellow author Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, “Being John Malkovich”) heading to Kansas . Capote’s intent is simply to write an article about how the murders affected the townspeople and bring some small town dirt to his big city readers. However, upon seeing the accused in court, particularly the solemn and wounded Perry (Clifton Collins Jr., “Traffic”), Capote becomes consumed with the idea of writing a non-fiction novel about the case.
This proves to be a fateful decision, as interest turns to obsession and Capote becomes increasingly and unethically involved with both Perry and the legal process surrounding the trial. Capote comes to see Perry as a kindred spirit, a fellow product of a broken home, and he coyly uses this connection to get the information he needs for his book. Nevertheless, the subconscious attachment to his subjects end up taking a terrible emotional and mental toll on Capote.
As the story of an artist whose greatest success also brings about his downfall, “Capote” could have been presented as a traditional Hollywood biopic ala “Ray.” But Miller avoids the pitfalls of the genre by refraining from mythologizing Capote, choosing instead to explore the emotional machinery behind the man rather than milking the “troubled genius” angle with vivid flashbacks to childhood traumas. Instead, Miller stays focused on the one event, extrapolating the developing co-dependency between Capote and Perry as the foreshadowing of the author’s eventual demise.
Most of the buzz about the film has centered on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s dead-on portrayal of Capote. It’s justified buzz, as everything from Hoffman’s dough-boy looks and effeminate mannerisms to his baby doll voice are perfected to a ‘T.’ If you’ve seen the side-splittingly funny comedy “Murder By Death,” you’ll instantly realize how good Hoffman’s portrayal truly is. Capote is a user and a manipulator and Hoffman’s delicately endearing and heinously ingratiating performance brings out these traits in spectacular fashion.
The supporting performances are mostly overshadowed by Hoffman, but they are strong nonetheless. Catherine Keener is excellent, constructing Lee as Capote’s foil. Lee is reason to Capote’s obsession, the shame to his pride. The other standout is Clifton Collins Jr. His low key performance as the emotionally disturbed Perry is more than up to Hoffman’s challenge. Collins exudes a perceptible air of barely controlled menace that grows proportionally to Perry’s relationship with Capote. The triumph of Collins’ performance is that it engenders uncomfortable sympathy for Perry, even after we learn of his role in the murders.
My only real quibbles with the film are the pacing and its aloofness. This is a deliberate film; almost too deliberate. Miller expertly maintains the tension and intrigue throughout with tight dialogue and strong performances, but lingers on thematic tangents towards the end. The film is also more intellectually than emotionally engaging. I observed and analyzed what Capote was experiencing, but never connected with Capote the man or felt what he was feeling.
Harsh, austere and incisive, “Capote” is a mesmerizing film. Those who enjoy something much darker and cerebral than the usual fare will be rewarded. The Oscar nominations the film has received are well deserved, and as a testament to its power, “Capote” made me want to go out and read “In Cold Blood.”
Bennett Miller (director) / Dan Futterman (screenplay), Gerald Clarke (book)
CAST: Philip Seymour Hoffman …. Truman Capote
Catherine Keener …. Harper Lee
Clifton Collins Jr. …. Perry Smith
Chris Cooper …. Alvin Dewey
Bruce Greenwood …. Jack Dunphy