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Film Review: Capote

Capote (2005; Directed by Bennett Miller)

Early in Bennett Miller’s masterfully composed, extremely haunting, but oddly unimaginative Capote, a juxtaposition of visual composition serves to establish a central binary opposition of American society. At a lonely farm house in rural Kansas in the 1950s, the four bodies of the Clutter family are found by a friend. Stark vistas of empty space open around the habitation, fields, sky, and horizon isolating the scene of a soon-to-be-infamous crime like the rural life isolates those who live it, imbuing their consciousness with a hermit ideology. But then Miller cuts to the cluttered skyline of New York City and into one of its squeezed buildings, where a crowded, noisy, smoky social gathering claustrophobically clusters around the bright intellectual light of Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his wit like a flame to these fluttering urban moths. It’s the hoary old country vs. city motif of social identity, but neither pole can anticipate how the events in that farmhouse will draw them together.

Capote – mannered, effete, cosmopolitan, and homosexual – is drawn, compelled almost, to the bloody story of the Clutter murders in Holcomb, Kansas when he comes across it in The New York Times, and asks his editor at The New Yorker magazine (Bob Balaban) to let him cover it. So the metropolis comes to the heartland, as Capote travels to Kansas with childhood friend, research assistant, and literary hopeful Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) along for the ride (her first novel is accepted by a publisher while working with Capote in 1959, something about killing birds). In Kansas, Capote spars with distrustful locals, including the main investigator Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), but gradually scares up one of the most fascinating and indelible true crimes tales in the history of American letters, later published as a bestselling “non-fiction novel”, In Cold Blood.

Truman Capote would ride the fame of In Cold Blood until his death, never completing another book. Capote (Dan Futterman is the screenwriter, based on Gerald Clarke’s book of the same name) has a too-simple psychological explanation for this creative drying-up: the author of In Cold Blood was so emotionally traumatized and morally compromised by the process of researching and writing the book that he retreated into drink, drugs, and moody depression and was thus incapable of following up on it with more work of equivalent quality. Although Capote did destroy his liver with intoxicants before his death in 1984 at the age of 59, his absorption in the international jet set likely had more to do with this than any lingering guilt over the events behind In Cold Blood.

For the purposes of the film, however, Miller and Futterman cannot allow the openly gay libertine writer, self-involved Blue State enclave partisan that he is, to go unaffected by the heartland horrors that he delved into, and especially do not let him off the hook for his role in the oft-delayed execution of the murderers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). Although Capote obtained good lawyers for their appeals, he was publically accused of doing “less than he might have” to save them from the noose by British critic Kenneth Tynan. Tynan’s acerbic accusation that Capote let them die to give his book an ending is here put into the mouth of his friend Harper Lee, whose own success he fails to acknowledge or celebrate at the premiere of the classic Gregory Peck-headed film based on her bestselling novel.

Capote is especially damning in its assessment of Capote’s perceived betrayal of Smith, the more intelligent and subtly-minded of the two convicted killers. The friendship between Capote and Smith, cultivated over years of jailhouse visits and telephone conversations, becomes the focus of the film, a connection that achieves some depth and affection despite the poisoned terms of its initiation. Hoffman’s mannered, ironically detached Capote is shown shedding his casually ironic sophistication in order to sincerely connect with his interview subjects in Kansas and get the information that he requires, and this is especially evident with Smith (Collins, a journeyman in minor roles, shines here opposite an acknowledged great).

Capote, who was abandoned by his mother and escaped rural Southern poverty to gain his beach-head of literary success, sees a sliver of himself in Smith, an alternate path that he is lucky not to have followed. But he also requires a eyewitness account of the Clutter murders that only Smith can give him for his book (Hickock is a bit of a dimwitted thug and of little use, at least in this film). Capote doesn’t precisely ask what a writer owes his subject in a non-fiction case such as this, or if Smith went to the gallows with Capote still in his debt. But Hoffman’s Capote is consumed and tormented by his subject’s fate anyway, and the late giant of the American acting craft compellingly embodies that consumption and torment as well as Capote’s physical mannerisms and distinctive vocal timbre (hence the Best Actor Oscar, though more likely it was just the guy’s turn to win, as is usually the case).

Capote is so scrupulously well-made and well-acted that it implicitly begs viewers to overlook the very broad and judgemental view it takes towards Truman Capote and how he put together his best-known work. It follows the accepted conventions of the artistic biopic, amplifying the indissoluble bonds between the writer’s self and his work. The idea of separation between artist and art, the vital distance through which most creators manage the fraught landscape of the creative process, is unfathomable. In Cold Blood was at once so hugely successful and its subject matter so far outside of Truman Capote’s milieu and experience of Manhattan cocktail parties and literary soirées, the film posits, that he could not but be deeply affected, and indeed deeply compromised, by it. Capote sells his soul at a Kansas crossroads, per Bennett Miller’s film, in exchange for a book of unquestioned greatness. For a film made with such haunting subtlety, this is far too pat a conclusion, and it diminishes Capote in a manner that technical or aesthetic missteps could not have.

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