In the 1960s, Truman Capote investigated, researched, and wrote about a mass murder that happened in Holcomb, Kansas. He published a novel based on the event and later gave Hollywood the rights to turn it into a successful movie. For a time he was the most famous writer in all of America; he shot to stardom, and even though he never finished another book, he remained popular to his death. But if you’ve sat through Bennett Miller’s Capote, you’d never have guessed that such fame awaited the man.
This movie chronicles a very specific time in Capote’s life, as it should. Most biopics tend to stray off course and lose sight of their destination when they spread themselves out over a long period of time. Accuracy is lost when we as the audience have to follow one man or woman for several decades. Again, I think about The Butler (I saw it recently). It was a perfectly satisfying movie, and yet it could’ve been stronger if it had focused on just a few years of Cecil Gaines’ life. Capote begins in 1959 and ends in 1965. It presents us with a small timeframe, and in this small timeframe a lot can be said. In fact, a lot is said.
Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman, transformed) was raised in Alabama and now resides in New York, where he entertains guests with amusing anecdotes about his encounters with celebrities. It seems that among his circle of friends and acquaintances, his unusual ways — including his unusual speaking habits — go unchecked. He blends right in and everyone loves him. He discovers the Kansas murder story in the papers one day and brings his colleague Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) — author of “To Kill A Mockingbird” — to Holcomb. At first he shows interest because he wants his friend William Shawn (Bob Balaban) of The New Yorker to post his story, but as he digs deeper into the investigation and eventually meets and talks to the suspected killers, inspiration for a new novel enters his mind.
He grows fond of the killers, in particular Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), who displays genuine cluelessness at times and deep remorse others. He confesses to killing the Clutter family, and his friendship with Capote gradually evolves into something deeper. As Perry ticks off the days in his cell, Capote visits him and strikes up conversation about his past and present. He promises to help with Perry’s appeal by finding him a better lawyer. He doesn’t. Instead he visits, time after time, in order to piece his jigsaw puzzle together. For his story to succeed, Perry has to die.
The great mastery of Hoffman’s performance lies not in his uncanny likeness to the real Capote, but in his effortless ability to balance the lies and the guilt. You see it all the time on TV — I’m sure it happens in real life too: Employee wants a raise or a promotion, so employee butters his or her boss up and hopes for the best. Expensive dinners. Extravagant gifts. Empty compliments. Most of the time it works, unless the boss is immune to flattery. In the case of Capote, he is the boss, and his supplier is in on his game. Perry knows that he’s being taken for a ride. Capote tries his best to conceal it. His goal is to butter Perry up, make him happy, and walk away with the gold. “There wasn’t anything I could’ve done to save him”, Capote laments after Perry’s execution. “Maybe”, Harper responds. “But the fact is you didn’t want to”.
This is Capote’s nightmare, smoothly exhibited by Hoffman in one of the movie’s final scenes. Yes, his novel — “In Cold Blood” — is finished, and it’s one of America’s bestsellers. Yes, the story of Perry Smith and his accomplice brings Capote fame. Yes, it’s all done. But there is no redemption in the way it was done. The end justifies the means. Not this time. This time there is no justification. Capote earns fame and fortune, and two men die.
Best Moment | It’d have to be the scene just before Perry’s execution, in the holding room.
Worst Moment | Nope.
This review is dedicated to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who passed away a couple of days ago. I’ve always held him in high esteem, and even though the circumstances surrounding his death were less than admirable, his work on screen cannot be refuted. Rest in peace.