Director: Bennett Miller
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban, Amy Ryan, Mark Pellegrino
MPAA Rating: (for some violent images and brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 9/30/05
Review by Mark Dujsik
Capote is the rarest of films that is not only superbly crafted in its own right but that also illuminates and expands upon our perception of another work. The other work is Truman Capote's controversial masterpiece In Cold Blood, a "non-fiction novel" chronicling a quadruple murder in rural America. In his work, Capote masterfully captures the impending dread of a family's last day on earth, the aftermath of the murders on the community, the investigation leading to the arrests of two unconnected and anonymous killers, and the lives of the murderers'. It is common knowledge that Capote got close—some argue too close—to one of the killers to accurately portray his character and to examine as much as humanly possible what brought him to participate in the most notorious crime of its time. What is less known is the dynamic of the relationship and how it ultimately affected Capote's writing and his life after completing the novel. Seeing these events from the author's point of view is fascinating in and of itself, but director Bennett Miller takes it even further. The film is first and foremost a character study of how Capote's personality influences his journalistic eye and how his drive to complete his art and equally—if not more so—to achieve his greatest success perhaps cost him his life.
The film opens with the iconic image of a quiet, isolated farmhouse amidst the plains of Kansas, an image Capote's novel changed in my mind forever. And this is that quiet, isolated house in Holcomb, Kansas where one night in 1959 the Clutter family was brutally murdered, found the next day by the daughter's best friend. Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) discovers an article about the killings one morning in the New York Times and convinces The New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban) to assign him to write a story about the murders' impact on the local population. Accompanied to Holcomb by friend and fellow writer Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who will soon finish To Kill a Mockingbird, Capote begins forced to attend press conferences held by Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent in charge of the manhunt, but ends up eating Christmas dinner with the Dewey family. All the while, he interviews locals about the Clutters, reads the daughter's diary, and visits the funeral parlor where their memorial services will be held. Eventually, the police arrest two men, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), in Las Vegas, who are subsequently charged, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murders.
Capote is fascinated with these two subjects, but he was also equally fascinated by the Clutter family, the townsfolk, and Dewey, only to toss them aside when Smith and Hickock enter the picture. Similarly, he connects more with Perry, leaving Richard alone in his cell with an occasional gift of pornography. The mystery of In Cold Blood lies in which of these two men killed the Clutters and why; here the mystery is Capote's motivation. Is it genuine sympathy with his subjects, or are these people merely the means to an end to be used for his own gratification and personal success? It's a complex portrayal of a man typically remembered for his flamboyant personality, childlike voice, and lisp. Capote is clearly sincere in the beginning, obtaining a lawyer for Perry and Richard's ensuing appeals and sharing stories of his own life to Perry to help the prisoner see that he is not alone. He even privately relates to Lee his feeling that Perry and he "grew up in the same house. And one day he went out the back door, and I went out the front." Once he has gotten all that he needs from Perry to begin writing, though, he abandons him for a year to write his book in Spain with his partner Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), only to return when he has hit a major block—primarily, the ending to his story.
It is at this point that the film's depiction becomes even more complicated. Suddenly faced with the prospect that an appeals process could take years (he has already spent almost five years since he began his investigative reporting) and if the outcome is in Perry and Richard's favor it will all be for nought. And so the only man Perry believed was on his side begins to turn the small lies (he tells the convict he has not decided on a title) into much larger deceptions and subtly begins to leave his subjects to their own hopeless devices. Director Bennett Miller is wise not to condemn Capote's actions—or, more appropriately, lack thereof—but instead objectively observes how this conflict between his self-absorption and his moral responsibility leads him toward a tragic set of circumstances that, once he realizes the damage he has caused, he is too late to prevent—even if he were wont to do so. Dan Futterman's screenplay (based on the pertinent sections of Gerald Clarke's biography) is a detailed rendering of the writer in this phase of life, mirroring the structure of In Cold Blood, and Miller's deliberate pacing allows us to absorb the intricacies of how this story and the decisions made to tell it affect him.
His behavior has its immediate results in terms of how people relate to him once they see his purpose. Dewey turns an early joke about hunting Capote down in Brooklyn into a legitimate threat if Perry and Richard walk after the author retains legal representation for the two. Chris Cooper portrays the apprehensive admiration of Capote as Dewey attempts to determine if his desire to tell the Clutters' story accurately is sincere and shifts to a quiet outrage at Capote's apparent betrayal by spending so much time with the killers and only asking for the agent's investigation notes. Bruce Greenwood is underused as Dunphy, but he easily gets across a lover's jealousy for his partner's work. Clifton Collins Jr. is a frightening Perry, obviously scared of losing his only friend during his incarceration but still clinging to the naïve hope that this is an honest friend. His statement of the novel's most famous line is haunting, but then again, so is the line itself. Standing by him through it all is Lee, and as played by Catherine Keener, she is a true friend, helpful but honest. Her final line to her friend is devastating in its candor.
At Capote's center is Philip Seymour Hoffman, with an astute mimicry of the title character's more obvious characteristics that never overshadows his interpretation of the man's inner nature. Hoffman is one of our foremost character actors, and in his role as Capote, he finds his greatest challenge and success. His performance and Miller's sympathetic direction make Capote's moral downfall not simply a deserved, forgone conclusion but a tragic ruin.
Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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