Director: Bennett Miller
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper
Rated R for violent images and brief strong language
New York literary darling Truman Capote was known for his flamboyant narcissism as much as his writing skill, and the new biopic bearing his name studies the unsettling ramifications of such singular devotion.
In 1958, following the success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Capote was the toast of the cultural elite, a lively and novel personality at the center of every swanky social event. His fey, disarming manner concealed a biting wit that won him more than a few enemies, but as a writing talent he was untouchable. So highly regarded was he, in fact, that when The New Yorker editor William Shawn read a preliminary excerpt of Capote’s true crime story In Cold Blood, he committed to publishing the completed work in its entirety, no matter how many issues it took.
Capote chronicles the six-year period during which our man researched and wrote In Cold Blood, which would become his greatest literary achievement. Unfortunately the success came, as it so often does, with a devastating price tag. Sensing that his book could be an unprecedented triumph, he found himself reaching further for the story than moral tethers would allow; dazzled by the promise of immortality, he cut the cords and set himself adrift. Under the subtle direction of Bennett Miller, this story of Capote’s deliberate surrender to ambition is quietly horrifying, and it may be the best picture of the year.
The story begins in 1959. After noticing a newspaper article about the brutal murders of an entire family in rural Kansas, Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) determines to make the killings the subject of his next book. With childhood friend Harper Lee in tow, he boards a train and heads for the heart of America.
Upon arrival, the conspicuous outsider sweet-talks his way into the confidences of investigator Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), and that association brings him close to the interior workings of the case. Once inside, however, Capote is drawn to the murderers, mesmerized by their moral vacancy. He begins a dialogue with Perry Smith, the quieter of the two killers, and uses his powers of manipulation to cast an emotional spell over the troubled young drifter. As Smith spills his guts, Capote records every detail and gasps to his friends that the kid is “a gold mine.” When the killers are quickly convicted, Capote uses his wealth and influence to recruit savvy lawyers who can protract the appeals process long enough for him to get the complete story.
Getting such a sensational story straight from the killer’s mouth would be a scoop for any journalist, but Capote was writing a “non-fiction novel,” and he needed denouement. As the appeals process dragged from months into years, he grew increasingly obsessed with his unfinished masterpiece, at one point grumbling to an incredulous Lee, “If they win this appeal, I’ll have a complete nervous breakdown. I can only pray it goes my way.”
They did not win, and when the time came for a final appeal, Capote could hold out no longer. Cruelly dropping all but faintest pretense of concern, he cut off his support from the men — and inevitably got his ending.
In Cold Blood was published to critical acclaim and smashing commercial success. Capote became an icon, descended into alcoholism, and never completed another book. By the age of 59, he drank himself to death.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is without a doubt the most talented actor working in Hollywood. Playing a man who was practically a caricature in real life, he makes Capote’s striking eccentricities seem as natural as breathing. Even more impressive, however, is his portrayal of the struggle occurring just below the surface of Capote’s consciousness. Here is a man who cannot bear to see what he is doing, and so he looks past it, searching for redemption even as he’s committing the sin.
Toward the end of the film, when a tearful Capote tells Lee, “I did everything I could. I truly did,” we have the mournful feeling that he’s right. A stronger man could have done more, but Capote had done everything in his power. In the end, it wasn’t enough, not for Perry Smith and Richard Hickcock, and not for Capote himself.