Directed by Bennett Miller
Screenplay by Dan Futterman
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, with Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban, Amy Ryan, Mark Pellegrino
Rated R; 115 minutes
A movie that simultaneously flatters its audience for its knowledge of recent literary history and vastly underestimates that audience’s ability to grasp some basic truths about writers and their subjects, Capote is a bipolar effort that’s almost redeemed by an amazing central performance. Philip Seymour Hoffman impersonates — no, inhabits — Truman Capote, and helps us understand why he was so much more than the whiny-voiced caricature he made of himself in his sadder, later years.
But while Hoffman-as-Capote is always entertaining, Capote wears out its welcome after a strong first half. The case that Capote proves, and proves, and re-proves over its near two-hour running time is that writers will do anything to get a story, including but not limited to lying, flattering, bullying and emotionally manipulating their sources. Some of them also kick puppies.
Capote concerns Truman Capote’s efforts to get the real story behind the horrific murders of the entire Clutter family on Nov. 14, 1959 in Holcombe, Kan. Capote’s ability to smell the basics of what he soon realized he could turn into a compelling, pioneering work — the “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood — and to persevere through the six years covering the two killers’ apprehension, trials, appeals and stays of execution — provide the framework for this film.
Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman have a great subject, one that’s incredibly relevant today, as journalist-source relationships (Judith Miller and “Scooter” Libby, Bob Woodward and Deep Throat II), which are usually kept under wraps, are being displayed in all their ugliness and complexity in both the media and the courts. This makes it all the more disappointing that the filmmakers feel they need to pound us over the head, Stanley Kramer-style, with their theme: that writers are self-absorbed vampires who will betray everyone around them in pursuit of their goal. (You may think they’re just listening to what you’re saying, but they’re really making mental notes for their next story/article/novel/whatever.)
The film is frustrating because it has such incredible materials to work with, and at times uses them to hypnotic effect. Capote’s first half, as Truman and his friend/research assistant Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), is a fascinating look at a writer at work. Capote and Lee come to this small Middle American town that has been ripped open by these horrific murders and use a combination of patience, cunning, and Capote’s literary celebrity to get closer to the story. There are wonderful scenes with Chris Cooper as Alvin Dewey, the taciturn, suspicious lead investigator for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and Amy Ryan as his wife Marie, who is thrilled to pieces that the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is actually in her modest suburban home. Cooper is always good, and Ryan was a spectacular Stella Kowalski in the recent Roundabout revival of A Streetcar Named Desire. All these actors — and let’s also credit director Miller — make it believable that this fey gay man with the odd speech pattern is able to share intimacy, and secrets, with these “ordinary” Americans.
Things take a more sinister turn for everyone after the killers are caught, and Capote gets close to them, especially the oddly delicate — and for that reason especially frightening — Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). Much of the film’s second half involves Capote’s efforts to get the facts of the ostensibly senseless murders from Smith. The details and motives, or lack of motives, will provide the missing piece for the book he is creating. As he says, he doesn’t know how it will end until the story — and in this case, Smith’s and his partner in crime Dick Hickock’s — lives will end.
Both Hoffman and Collins are remarkable, but here Miller’s love affair with his actors doesn’t serve the film. The draggy pace of the second half mirrors Capote’s frustration with both the slow grind of the criminal justice system and Smith’s unwillingness to provide him with what he needs (both journalist and source are playing each other for all they can get, for high stakes). But better editing, of the screenplay itself and of the final film, could have conveyed this without making the audience feel like it was just waiting for something, anything, to happen. The slow, careful interview style of the first half becomes a sleep-inducing rhythm as Capote plods on.
Capote also states many of its themes rather than develops them dramatically. One of the more interesting aspects of the relationship of Capote and Smith is that they are, or perceive themselves to be, outsiders. Both had horrific childhoods; both are alive to the nuances of words; but as Capote says, “We grew up in the same house, but one day he left through the back door and I left through the front door.”
Smith is not only Capote’s double, he’s also his love object — although it’s never quite clear if he loves the man or the story more. The film picks up near the end as it details what the creation of In Cold Blood is costing Capote (he has to verbally bitch-slap Smith to get the information he needs, and he passively refuses to help them get a lawyer who might be able to postpone their execution). A note onscreen at the film’s end informs us that Capote never finished another book after completing In Cold Blood in 1966, though he lived nearly two decades more. And what he did write was criticized for being fiction based too closely on fact, although his later writing focused on society matrons and his fellow literati, not poor outcasts and murderers.
Capote is also a little disturbing in that, by painting both Truman and the murderers as monsters, it somehow equates their “crimes.” The film may be treading into deeper philosophical waters than it’s ready to go into. It is something of a dilemma: one part of me feels like In Cold Blood — which is a remarkable and important book, one that really changed the rules for what a book could do and how powerfully it could affect a reader — is worth whatever sacrifice Truman Capote had to make in order to write it. Another is horrified and saddened by this film’s implication — that Capote had to commit two more murders, and kill his own soul, in order to produce a work of art. Capote is valuable because it lets us peek under the hood to see what made Truman write; we have to decide ourselves if he was right.