Chilly, downbeat, thought-provoking, flawed and anchored to a wholly remarkable performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote is a hard movie to like — and an even harder one to ignore. It’s also possibly too ambitious for its own good.
While the film simplifies matters by limiting itself to a specific six-year period in writer Truman Capote’s life (the research into and writing of In Cold Blood), it nonetheless tackles the hardest of all artistic endeavors to make cinematically interesting: writing. I can only think of two movies that have really pulled that off: the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink and David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch.
First-time narrative filmmaker Bennett Miller and actor-turned-screenwriter Dan Futterman have taken a different angle with Capote. They look less at the actual process of writing and more at the way an author develops a story — and the way that story in turn shapes the writer. Yet their film does share a common theme with Naked Lunch.
It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar films than the utterly fantasticated Cronenberg film and the comparatively naturalistic Capote. But the two movies are brothers under the skin in the concern over the effect of the material on the writer, and the inherent danger — to the writer and those in his sphere — of the very act of writing. Both films also sexualize writing, albeit in different ways. Cronenberg makes the act of writing a sexual, even sensual experience (following the dictates of Freud), and suggests that William Burroughs is acting out his homosexuality through the writing.
Miller and Futterman find something similar in Capote’s increasingly obsessive approach to one of the subjects of his story, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr., The Rules of Attraction). Smith, along with Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino, National Treasure), senselessly and ruthlessly murdered an entire Kansas family in 1959, when the duo broke into their farmhouse in the belief that a large sum of money was hidden there (it wasn’t). The original news item caught Capote’s interest and he decided it would be his next story.
So, pitching the idea for an article to the New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban, Gosford Park), Capote obtains funding to go to the Kansas town with childhood friend and fellow writer Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) to research the story. At first, Capote’s interest is strictly in the effect of the murders on the community (“I don’t care one way or the other if you catch who did this”), but this changes when the killers are caught and Capote meets them — or more specifically when he meets Perry Smith, to whom he is immediately drawn.
Soon Capote’s article has metamorphosed into a “new kind of book,” which he terms the “nonfiction novel,” and the project takes over his life — the project and his attraction to (or sense of kinship with) Perry. As the story progresses, Capote’s obsession causes a rift in his relationship with lover Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood, Being Julia), who becomes convinced that Capote has fallen for Perry (something Capote never acknowledges or denies). Capote believes that he and Perry — two amazingly dissimilar people — are some kind of kindred spirits because of their similar backgrounds of abuse and neglect. “It’s like Perry and I grew up in the same house, and one day he went out the back door and I went out the front,” Capote explains.
But more than Perry, it’s the writing that takes over the writer, and he will manipulate and deceive Perry to get the book he wants — even to the extent of dreading the prospect of Perry not hanging, because it will deprive him of an ending. Capote tells Perry that if he (Capote) doesn’t understand what happened the night of the murders, the world will view Perry as a monster “and I don’t want that.” Yet that’s what he ultimately gets and what he wants. (In all honesty, In Cold Blood evidences somewhat more pity for Perry than Capote indicates.) Toward the end, Capote attempts to justify himself by claiming that there was nothing he could do to save Perry. Harper Lee admits that that may be true, but adds, “The fact is you didn’t want to.”
Yet Perry isn’t the only victim of Capote’s literary obsession. In a different way, Capote was his own victim. His actions were as much self-destructive as outwardly so; he never finished another book and drifted into drugs and exploiting his bitchy persona as a colorful character.
Capote is a grim and fascinating portrait of the artist as a reckless — perhaps helpless — obsessive; as a result, this is a powerful film, but a depressing one that doesn’t quite connect emotionally. Its strangely airless quality keeps the viewer at a slight distance, while its curious lack of passion — a detachment — holds events at arm’s length, recording them without seeming to feel them. And that’s despite Hoffman’s brilliant performance.
Like Capote himself, the film feels brilliant, but cold. Unlike Capote, though, it never manages to suggest a deeper manifestation of the pain and confusion and longing under that cold brilliance, making the film slightly less than it might have been. But it at least gets close to greatness and is never less than mesmerizing. Rated R for some violent images and brief strong language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke