In November of 1959, two men broke into a farmhouse in Holcomb, Kan. and murdered a family of four.
This event was the inspiration for Truman Capote’s viciously famous book, “In Cold Blood,” and the years of research and writing that went into the work are the subject of Bennett Miller’s film, “Capote.”
The film opens on a party. Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is in the prime of his life, having just come off the success of his novella, “Breakfast At Tiffany’s.” He is the center of attention at this party as, with a highball in one hand, he says to the crowd of sophisticates gathered around him, “Don’t be afraid of who you are.” The next scene shows Capote alone and reading the New York Times. It is here that he comes across a short article detailing the Clutter family killings in Holcomb.
And so the story begins.
The film’s narrow-minded focus of the six years (1959 – 1965) it took to complete “In Cold Blood” is a far cry from the title’s implication. “Capote” as a title would, if I’m not mistaken, suggest to most people that what they have paid $8 to see is a biography of the notoriously successful, and openly gay, author of short stories and the “nonfiction novel.” There would be lots about Capote’s life to choose from: Abandonment by his mother, his drug and alcohol abuse, the nights spent as a Studio 54 regular. Instead the film spends two hours dialoguing his relationship with those involved in the Clutter case and, most importantly, his relationship with one of the killers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). A more appropriate title for the film might have been something like, “In Cold Blood: Exposed!”
Nevertheless the film is compelling and Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote is one of those great performances where you forget the person you are watching on screen is actually just an actor playing a part. Hoffman’s Capote is hauntingly believable and comes complete with all the mannerisms that are well-known trademarks of the author: high-pitched vocals, a slight lisp, effeminate hand gestures. But, throughout the film, we see that Hoffman has fleshed out something even deeper within Capote. Namely, a sensitive and troubled exterior that belies calculated manipulation. Several scenes show Capote lying to get what he wants out of people, and Hoffman plays these scenes with such sweetness and sincerity that even the audience may feel taken.
One of the most disturbing parts of the film is the intense relationship that develops between Capote and Smith. Capote spends hours with Smith in his jail cell, befriending him and trying to get him to talk about what happened on the night of the killings. Because of this, rumors about the nature of their relationship abound in the film, as they did in real life. Some say that Capote fell in love with Smith and some say that he sympathized with the killers more than the victims.
One rumor suggests that he was just using Smith to finish his novel, and the film is rather slanted in this way. After Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) are convicted and sentenced to death, Capote finds them a new lawyer in the hopes that the courts might lift their death sentence on an appeal. The implication here is that he won’t get any information for his book out of them if they’re dead. Years later, when the two are facing their final appeal, Smith begs Capote in a letter to find an even better lawyer. But Capote refuses as he is now desperately wanting to finish his novel and believes it can’t be completed until Smith and Hickock are finally executed.
“Capote” also features performances from Catherine Keener and Chris Cooper. Keener is cast in a surprisingly sedate role for her as Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (or “that bird book” as it’s often referred to in the film) and long-time friend of Capote. Cooper plays Alvin Dewey, an agent for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
The film is stylistically effective, with somber music and muted colors, and seems to be a somewhat accurate representation of the circumstances that surrounded the writing of “In Cold Blood.” Don’t be surprised, though, if you find yourself fidgeting in your seat. “Capote” is a bit slow in places, and the two-hour length may feel more like the six-year span of time the film covers.