In many respects, Capote, Bennett Miller’s thoughtful account of the pivotal six years leading to the release of author Truman Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, is a film about observation. More specifically, it forces us to consider the relationship between artist and subject. Rarely have real-life events given a filmmaker such a vivid example of the intersection between artistic ambition and human compassion as that of Capote’s journey to report on the horrific execution of a family in the quiet heart of Kansas.
Given the lightness of his previous writings, most notably Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Capote’s gravitation to a grisly murder in the middle of nowhere seems out of place for such a well-versed intellectual and socialite. Yet, from the get-go, the churnings of Capote’s soul are far from transparent. When we first lay eyes upon his shrewd, elfin figure, the audience encounters Truman in his natural environment enchanting the elite of New York’s intellectual and artistic circles with his trademark blend of bitchy wit, wicked intelligence, and subversive flamboyance.
With his tortoise shell spectacles, ubiquitous bowtie, and breathy, drawling lisp, Truman could have easily become an esoteric curiosity, and he knows it. Underneath the fey mannerisms and sly self-regard lies a core of uncompromising talent, an integrity that elevates him beyond the sum of his quirks. Though he is comfortable within the glittery world he has made for himself, he is constantly observing it also.
Capote is played by the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, and one cannot praise his physical transformation enough. Hoffman seems to enter Capote through the natty particularities of his voice, every lit and inflection giving the audience a cue as to what this fascinating yet distancing individual might be thinking. Uncanny mimicry, though, only carries a film so far. Once Capote leaves the bubble of Manhattan and sojourns westward (cinematographer Adam Kimmel’s subtle segue from New York glitz to Midwestern, Edward Hopper-esque desolation is masterful), Hoffman’s brilliant portrayal essays the enigmatic contradictions that will power Capote’s work and rip open his soul.
Capote is accompanied to Kansas by friend and fellow Southern author Harper Lee, played by Catherine Keener with her reliable mix of understated wit and skepticism. Capote and Less possess an easy rapport, the two authors sharing a disregard for the gender stereotypes of their time and place (he a homosexual, she never married). As Capote finds himself drawn to the murders more and more, Lee maintains a distance that mirrors our own. Like her, we are intrigued by and sympathetic to Capote, while questioning what ultimately drives him, human sympathy or writerly joy at the literary treasure trove he has uncovered in the most unsuspecting of locales.
This question becomes the centerpiece of Capote, as Miller and first-time screenwriter Dan Futterman, adapting Gerald Clarke’s biography, tighten the focus on Capote’s relationship with one of the murderers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). As their interviews progress and deepen, Truman forms an unexpected emotional and quasi-romantic connection with Smith, seeing aspects of his own damaged childhood within the killer. “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house,” Truman explains. “He stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.” Miller missteps, however, in assuming Smith and Capote are on equal ground as characters. Though we are told Perry Smith is a stone-killer, he comes across as a wounded puppy with sporadic bulldog tendencies. Collins’s performance gives little hint of the shadows beneath Smith’s immediate need for human connection.
Shadows, gray and disorienting, are what Hoffman finds in the film’s third act, as Capote makes the painful realization that the only satisfying conclusion to his novel is the execution of Smith. To what extent Capote’s inertia helped settle the deaths Smith and accomplice Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) is well-trodden folklore, yet Hoffman invests Capote’s dilemma with mournful and mysterious depths that bring it fresh emotional complexity. He never explains away Truman’s thorny motives and questionable actions because, ultimately, they were as much a mystery to Capote as they are to us.
Capote understands this as well, and refuses to defend or demonize. According to the credits, In Cold Blood made Truman Capote the most famous writer in America, and the filmmakers clearly respect the accomplishment. The personal cost of uncompromised artistry, meanwhile, is silently considered as well, reflected in the elusive flickers of wisdom and melancholy that spill across Hoffman’s face.