Capote (2005, Bennett Miller)


Bennett Miller’s debut narrative film Capote is anything but a typical biopic, far more probing and fascinating than the notion of a Hollywood deconstruction of its title figure would suggest; one could question its value to someone who doesn’t have an extant interest in its subject matter — specifically, the events in Truman Capote’s life surrounding the creation of his groundbreaking true crime masterpiece In Cold Blood — but it’s not as though a movie should be faulted for expecting such a marvelous prerequisite. Besides, Capote‘s themes about artistic responsibility and the conflict of humanity and art are ambitious, vividly philosophical and above all universal. By only subtly hinting at its nearly infinite subtext, it becomes an uncommonly powerful experience.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman, phenomenal as always and richly deserving of his Academy Award, embodies Capote in one of the sporadic performances in cinema wherein an actor truly disappears inside his or her counterpart; as much as Hoffman has since his death become as mythical a figure as Capote, one frequently forgets the presence of the former here, a consequence of his freewheeling adoption of the writer’s curious speech matters and quiet, charismatic manipulations, aided of course by Dan Futterman’s script (sourced from a biography by Gerald Clarke). Over the course of this narrative one will inevitably find Capote an alternately magnetic and repellent figure, even eventually a deeply conflicted and pathetic one, and all of this converges into the complicated figure approximated (created?) before us, in turn converging in a landmark book we know to have become its author’s zenith and undoing. All the while, Capote himself is impressively humanized and intelligently drawn.

The crux of In Cold Blood‘s troubled history would require too much space to pare down here, one reason it’s so impressive that the film establishes it so succinctly. The book tells of a horrifying murder of an entire family in rural Kansas, the effect on the community at large and the subsequent legal battles following the capture of the two perpetrators. When Capote’s book was written, the now-familiar idea of narrative nonfiction of its particular deeply involved and intricate quality was all but revolutionary. In the course of such an act of pioneering journalism, Capote legendarily became extremely, perhaps inappropriately close to one of the murderers, Perry Smith (portrayed beautifully here by Clifton Collins); it was speculated that he was experiencing an infatuation, a notion the film does not avoid. It’s much more telling that Capote seems in front of our eyes to be using Perry’s trusting nature and desire for connection for his own benefit, altering his manner just as he does around the literary elite, law enforcement and his own friends and lovers.

The film poses numerous questions about this enigmatic figure and his potential absence of neutrality (wondering of course if neutrality could even have served him), answering few of them except to imply that the plate-spinning — and, some allege, withholding of crucial information — wore him down into an empty shell. At one point Capote sprung for a better lawyer for the killers, perhaps out of compassion, perhaps to extend the life of the story he wished to tell; later, following appeal after appeal, he yearned for it all to be over, perhaps so that he could finish the book that by now was tormenting him, perhaps to make it easier to escape the pain of his own self-serving machinations as they fell on other human beings. Only, of course, he didn’t escape that at all. And are we as audience, as readers, only just as guilty for reaping the benefits, first of his dark repainting of truths in the book itself, then of his own downfall for us to sit riveted now at the film?

There are some fears early on that the film is in danger of turning into a sensationalistic morality play about the liberties Capote was willing to take to give himself the book he wanted to write, sort of a metaphysical and romantic Ace in the Hole, but the complexity goes far beyond this. If Bullets Over Broadway finally argues for the person over the play, Capote gives one at least a few interesting thoughts in the opposite direction. Capote speaks at one point of being short of breath when he thinks of how great his book is going to be; it’s a chilly, uncomfortable moment. But the strange thing is that he’s not exactly wrong.

At times, Capote as a character here can seem flippant not just about the execution of a supposed confidante he once seemed to sincerely fight for (or did he?) but indeed about the crime at the center of his book itself; he’s so impressed with Perry’s potential as a narrative device it’s as though the bloody scene of the crime recedes into distant memory until Perry himself jolts us back with his recounting of the night (“I really admired Mr. Clutter, right up to the moment I slit his throat”), and then it’s no longer possible for charisma to cover up the taking of human life… something that, it seems, is not lost on Capote as an application to his own strange transgressions during those months in Kansas. As Perry shakes hands and mugs it up with Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the detective in charge of the Clutter investigation, on his way to his own execution, he seems a mirror image of Capote schmoozing with rooms full of academics. Perry’s own sister warned Capote much earlier not to trust his fake sensitivity. We flash back and rethink everything and the question crops up of who was really manipulating whom.

The moral battle is not entirely left for the audience to fight, which in this case is a good thing, as it gives Hoffman a chance to show his chops; he’s tremendous. The crisis of conscience that builds for the duration of the film is played out entirely on Hoffman’s face, as expressive as any elaborate trick of the eye. He is thoroughly believable in crowd-pleasing mode, angry and embittered, and sensitive and loving. The illusion he gives of the final conflicts of a man broken is searing, and one leaves the film feeling amazingly beaten by self-imposed tragedy tempered by the complexity of wonder at beauty wrought from loss.

Is Capote a glowing tribute or an indictment? Thankfully, it’s neither. It doesn’t necessary cover the entirety of an unvarnished, unbiased truth — the role of Harper Lee (very well played by Catherine Keener) in researching In Cold Blood is somewhat minimized, though the relationship of the two close friends is fully believable — but it does feel like an honest harnessing of real life. In a sense Miller and his collaborators’ decisive act is to get out of the way of a compelling, unsimplified story full of strangeness, contradiction and nuance that fiction could never convincingly duplicate. Like In Cold Blood itself, it’s an emotional challenge to the very framework of the murder mystery.

For a first-time director, the assurance and economy in Capote are rather shocking. The film moves along so briskly, telling only what needs to be told and moving on, and makes its point so well and so quickly, one wishes Miller could be assigned to re-edit any number of other prestige pictures. Because this one is an exception to the rule: a movie people really will be talking and thinking about long after they see it.

[Expanded from a review posted in 2007.]

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