Director : Bennett Miller
Screenplay : Dan Futterman (based on the book by Gerald Clarke)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Philip Seymour Hoffman (Truman Capote), Catherine Keener (Harper Lee), Clifton Collins Jr. (Perry Smith), Chris Cooper (Alvin Dewey), Bruce Greenwood (Jack Dunphy), Bob Balaban (William Shawn), Amy Ryan (Marie Dewey), Mark Pellegrino (Richard Hickock), Allie Mickelson (Laura Kinney), Marshall Bell (Warden Marshall Krutch), Araby Lockhart (Dorothy Sanderson)
Biopics are always tricky propositions because they invariably take the same approach to the material, regardless of the subject. Even the best biopics, the ones that truly get at the heart of the person’s life story and make you feel the arc of life, almost always resort to a “greatest hits parade” of important and memorable life moments and experiences, starting with childhood and ending with death. It’s a tried-and-true formula, one that prevails so extensively that filmmakers are loathe to challenge it, which is exactly what director Bennett Miller and writer Dan Futterman have done with their extraordinary film Capote.”
Capote, a brilliantly tense and disquieting film, covers only six years in the life of writer Truman Capote -- less than half a decade -- yet it brilliantly employs those years to convey Capote’s conflicted essence. The years in question are 1959 to 1965, beginning with the discovery of the brutal murders of a Kansas farm family and ending with the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote’s heralded “nonfiction novel” about that event which made him, as the film states in an ending title card, “the most famous author in America.” It is also, the film informs us, the last book he ever completed, even though he lived for another 19 years. Thus, we never see Capote’s difficult childhood with an alcoholic mother, or his rise through the ranks of the magazine world to become a famous novelist, or his infamous rivalry with fellow writer Gore Vidal, but that is not to say they are not present in the film. Rather, first-time screenwriter Dan Futterman ingeniously weaves the strands of Capote’s history into the brief period of time covered, thus illustrating how the past intersects with the present and shapes the future.
When the film opens, Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is already a celebrated figure of the literary world, having published several successful novels and made himself a fixture of the flamboyant jet set. When he reads a story in The New York Times about the mysterious murder of the Clutter family, he decides to go to tiny Holcomb, Kansas, in order to write a story about it for The New Yorker. He brings along with him Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), his childhood friend who works as his research assistant and is soon to become a celebrated author in her own right with the 1960 publication of her first and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. With his lisping, pitched voice, boyish appearance, and slightly eccentric mannerisms, Capote is someone who stands out even among celebrities, and it is part of the film’s genius that it conveys so quickly and simply how a man of such pretensions could ingratiate himself so thoroughly into a tiny, rural community.
The heart of the story is in the relationship Capote develops with the two drifters who were eventually arrested and convicted for the murders, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). Capote is particularly drawn to Smith, in whom he sees a kindred spirit. As he says to Harper Lee at one point, “It’s as if we grew up in the same house, and one day he went out the back door and I went out the front.” Capote is so taken with Smith, in fact, that he begins to help the two men by getting them lawyers to aid in the appeal process after their conviction. However, this eventually presents a grave moral dilemma to Capote, as each stay of execution that spares Smith and Hickock’s lives becomes a stumbling block to his finishing what he knew would become his masterwork before he ever committed a single word to paper.
Capote slowly and quietly turns into a story about deep moral conflict, in which Capote struggles with his unquenchable desire for the fame and literary credit that he knows will come only with the deaths of Smith and Hickock by hanging (the brutal violence and frank barbarity of the method of execution lends the conflict an even more heightened tension). Subtly, but unmistakably, Capote begins to crumble before our eyes; we notice that he drinks more and more and becomes more irritable and tired as he struggles with the task of completing a book that by necessity must wait for a final outcome that he can influence -- or not. Writing itself becomes a metaphor for Capote’s battle between his internal and external selves, between the voice that begs him to help save a man whom he has befriended and the voice that knows with awful clarity that the man must die if he is ever to finish.
Much has been made of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Capote, and for good reason. Hoffman has consistently been one of the best and most versatile character actors in Hollywood ever since his breakthrough as a pathetic loneyheart in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997), and this rare leading role proves that he can carry an enormous weight on his shoulders. He nails the details of Capote’s particular speaking style and mannerisms, but he doesn’t let the performance get weighted down by simple mimicry. Rather, he brings us into the heart of his conflicted character, often by not saying anything at all. Notice, for instance, the intensity of Capote’s look when he first lays eyes on Perry Smith coming up the courthouse steps; it is as if he knows what is coming and is steeling himself for the long road ahead.
Hoffman ably conveys Capote’s endearing penchant for wild anecdotes (several scenes show him regaling groups of people at high-society parties), but also his ruthlessness. One of the film’s cruelest scenes is when he turns on Smith, essentially refusing friendship until Smith tells him what he wants to hear. And, in essence, that is the heart of Capote’s moral failing, which the film argues was the cause of his undoing: his inability to separate his ambition from the lives around him it helped destroy, including his own.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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