A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG-13, 114 mins.
Truman Capote: Philip Seymour Hoffman / Harper Lee: Catherine Keener
/ Perry Smith: Clifton Collins Jr. / Alvin Dewey: Chris Cooper
/ Jack Dunphy: Bruce Greenwood / William Shawn: Bob Balaban / Dick Hickock: Mark Pellegrino
It could be easily stated that Truman Capote’s life seemed like the perfect material for a motion picture. If truth does – in fact – seem stranger than fiction, than no more is this sentiment appreciated if one considers the narrative of the new biopic CAPOTE.
This film chronicles a brief period of the landmark writer’s career as he became obsessed with the research and writing of IN COLD BLOOD, a pioneering work of a relatively new genre of the documentary "non-fiction novel.” Surely, if the film was not based on a real persona, than Capote sure comes across as a wonderfully original creation.
But, alas, Capote was a real writer and his life alone is a real page-turner. The New Orleans literary auteur was a child of divorce, which may or may not have led to his developing individualistic spirit and edge later in life. He lived some years with his relatives, one of whom became the model for the loving, elderly spinster of the author's novels, stories, and plays. In his childhood Capote made friends with Harper Lee, who portrayed him as Dill in her world famous novel TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. At the age of 17 Capote ended his formal schooling and would subsequently find work at THE NEW YORKER, where he attracted attention with his odd style of dress and colorful, verbal excesses.
His first foray into novels was with the 1948 work OTHER VOICES, OTHER ROOMS which gained wide success and created controversy because of its treatment of homosexuality. During this time Capote had already established his fame among the cultural circles as the thin voiced, promising young writer who could liven up parties with his sharp and capricious remarks. Later on in life Capote would travel as far as Europe and would continue to write both fiction and non-fiction work. It was during these European years where the young writer would venture into theatre and film. Capote's first important film work was a collaboration with John Huston on 1954's BEAT THE DEVIL. Perhaps the most famous production that he had his auspicious hands in was BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S from 1958, which he wrote after a return States side.
Yet, Capote truly cemented himself as one of the all-time literary greats with his revolutionary IN COLD BLOOD, which was published in 1966. The book gained international fame as an account of a real life crime in which an entire family was slaughtered by two sociopaths. If anything, his journey into creating the book seemed almost too sensational to be real. His increasing preoccupation with journalism lead him to become utterly transfixed with the murder of this wealthy family from Holcomb, Kansas. The book started as an article for the NEW YORKER and, after being heavily sponsored by the magazine, he continued to work at making the article into a novel. In a brilliant bit of reconstructive energy, both he and Harper Lee would interview many of the townspeople of Holcomb to give the novel a veracity, scope, and tone. He became so attached to the people involved – both the victims and perpetrators – that his mental health soon began to give way. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this period of Capote’s creative energies was the fact that he became very close and emotionally involved with the killers themselves.
IN COLD BLOOD made the Truman Capote that modern writers and literary scholars know and appreciate. What many may not know is that the book, essentially, led to his downfall and destruction just when his career looked to be reaching even higher echelons of respect and critical worth. He would never write another book again and eventually died an alcoholic in 1984. Perhaps no more true is the credo that all great artists suffer for their work than when it comes to Capote. His 6-year odyssey into researching and writing IN COLD BLOOD proved to be his undoing for the way he let his own self-obsessed, manipulative, impulsive, and selfish interests get the best of him. The way he insultingly betrayed the own subjects of his book were almost as terrifying and morose as the killings themselves. Yet, like all great creators, his drives and desires overcame him and superseded all other sensations, like morality and fairness. However, this should not let one see IN COLD BLOOD unfairly as a pure vanity project by the author (several scholars think it’s a virtuoso piece of objective journalism), but it was Capote’s methods leading to his book to seeing final fruition that are undeniably putrid.
Bennett Miller’s new biopic of Capote does not interest itself in providing much of a back-story to the man, nor is it an all-inclusive look at his life. Much like other biopics, like Michael Mann’s ALI or the more recent WALK THE LINE, CAPOTE feels more at home with narrowing its focus to a shorter time period (in its case, the six year period of researching and writing IN COLD BLOOD). The film does a very decent job of pinpointing the near narcissistic impulses that drove the genius of Capote. He was not, in any real way, a saint. At least in the film, he is presented as being callous, cold hearted, wickedly sardonic, and a petulant man whose small stature did not preclude an equally small ego. He was wrapped up in a blanket of his own bloated self-importance, but his egocentricity and flamboyant vanity did not overshadow his work as a writer with passion, precision, and unalterable skill.
CAPOTE gets the psychology of the writer correctly, but it’s kind of a shame how much of the rest of the film kind of misses its marks. I found myself so engulfed by Capote - the character - that it was surprising how little I invested in the oftentimes clunky, lethargic, and slow-moving narrative. Capote is such a genuinely original and fascinating figure that it’s hard to garner much interest in the story around him. CAPOTE is equal parts compelling and dull, lifeless and grandiose, whimsical and tragic. It’s made of so many disparaging elements that it feels off balance.
Capote was a hollow man of artistic ambition, but the one thing that this biopic seems to fail at is getting the audience to understand why his writings were so great. Sure, we get scenes of publicists telling him (and us) that IN COLD BLOOD is a masterstroke work, but we never get much of an inside look as to the reasons why. We get all of the research side of how Capote worked, but what about the actual writing itself? Films like the great ADAPTATION showed the process of getting ideas on to paper and how difficult that can be for an author. Capote offers none of these insights into Capote's manner of writing. The film shows us what a cunning and deplorable man he was; it does not seem to want to show us - aside from his research methods - his journey beyond that to putting his thoughts on a page.
Much like the lead character himself, the film also has a cold, mean spirited, and unsavory edge to it. CAPOTE correctly makes the writer a deeply flawed human being, but I am not too sure where it really stands for the murderers of the family to which IN COLD BLOOD is based on. The film seems to chillingly sympathize with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickcok (Mark Pellegrino) who should be very easily condemned for their viscous and heinous crimes. CAPOTE makes the author into a monster himself in the way he uses, manipulates, and forms false bonds with these two men to the point where he fosters a friendship between them that is largely based on false pretences. Hmmmm...should I really feel badly that these killers are used in any terrible way? I can deplored the methodology of Capote's research, but I sure don't feel pity for the murderers themselves, as I oftentimes sensed this movie was wanting to illicit in me. This, unfortunately, created an emotionally distancing from the film as a whole.
Capote makes no bones about how and why he used these men and he cuts to the heart of his true motives on many occasions. You can come out of CAPOTE respecting his journalistic talents and commitment to his work, but you never once like him in the film, nor or you meant to. Yet, the film’s emotional and moral barometer is widely skewed. I found myself hating the killers even more than Capote, but the way the film shows them as unwilling pawns in his ultimate mind and end game is disquieting and unsettling. The film focuses largely on the role of Perry and almost seems to sidestep Richard altogether. We get into Perry’s head, but only do we get a small inkling as to what Richard thinks. Sure, he gives Capote a few evil looks once or twice to give the audience an indication as to his thought processes, but that’s about it.
There are only two characters in the film that I ever empathized with in any real, discernable way. One is Harper Lee herself (played nicely by Catherine Keener in a severely underwritten part) and the other is the local police sheriff (another effortless performance by Chris Cooper, also in a underwritten part). Cooper’s sheriff is reluctantly cooperative with Capote, but deep down shows great disdain for the man’s egomaniacally tendencies (at one point he tells him, face to face, that if his book gets the killers “off”, that he’ll hunt him down personally). Harper Lee is arguably the most thankless character in the film as an emotional anchor (compared to Capote’s esoteric stylings and over-the-top social antics, she’s amazingly low key and down to earth).
She was gaining notoriety for her TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD while Capote was still working on his book. However, the film never seems to divulge what her motivation is for assisting Capote, nor does it paint her as much of an individualist figure. She is a grounded woman with a head on her shoulders, but why did she help this unmitigated SOB so much with exploiting the killers? There are a few scenes here and there where she politely challenges him (“Do you hold him in high esteem,” she asks Capote of Perry at one point), but there is very little tension and dramatic intensity to these moments. Their relationship seems too cozy and lacking in spirited conflict. At least in the film, Lee comes across as a bit too understanding of the way Capote seems to take advantage of people and the memories of the victims.
As for Capote himself, this film’s one saving grace is in the amazingly realized performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. His style and manner - at least at first - seems to be more of an imitative piece of acting than an actual performance, but as the film progressed Hoffman’s work goes beyond anything one-note. He incredibly captures the essence of the man and grows to inhabit the role. He becomes so transformative that his performance becomes less and less obvious (much like how Val Kilmer played Jim Morrison, you grow decreasingly less conscious of the actor underneath the character’s façade). Hoffman, in every way, journey’s into this man’s soft-spoken and outwardly effeminate mannerisms and disappears into a multifaceted portrait of a cruel and vindictive SOB. His Capote oozes serpentine and ghoulish moral emptiness so much that the film never once demands our acceptance of him. He was a user of people and betrayed their trust to get what he wanted. In this way, he’s one of 2005’s most vile characters. CAPOTE is a biopic that - thankfully - never sugarcoats the writer for mass consumption.
Yet, Hoffman’s incredibly lethal performance as an artist that both shattered lives and created acclaimed works is not enough to save CAPOTE. The film’s spotlight seems about as self-centered as the peculiar writer himself (it’s largely told from his perspective, without much input from others. For example, what did the victims' family think of IN COLD BLOOD?). More than anything, CAPOTE is a polished, brilliantly acted, and competently directed biopic that – unfortunately – lacks ambition in terms of telling a thoroughly compelling and engrossing story. It ultimately emerges as a series of scenes that are cobbled together to facilitate the purpose of being a prolonged character assignation piece. We see - much of the time - how Capote used his subject matter in ways that made him into repulsive (yet gifted) artist that pathologically lied to get what he wanted and when he wanted it. Yet, what CAPOTE fails to answer is why and how he reached a point in his career where he became such a malicious tyrant for the sake of his work. We bare witness to his psychological underpinnings, but were his impulses just all about landing a subject matter that was – as he referred to it – a “gold mine?” There has to be more to this writer than this film let's on.