A writer pushed outside of his comfort zone can deliver great journalism. As Capote tells it, Truman Capote’s experience reporting In Cold Blood knocked him senseless to the floor.
But you wouldn’t feel compelled to extend a hand to help him up. A lot of biopics are described as “warts-and-all.” Here, those warts are the life of the story. In another tale, a writer pursuing a book at the cost of ethics, morals and, most of all, a soul at peace would have a lightbulb moment to sway him back toward sympathy.
But likeable isn’t exactly Philip Seymour Hoffman’s forte. This always-great actor delivers his finest, bravest performance yet as Capote, blending the character’s flamboyant mannerisms and towering reputation with subtle menace and crumbling composure. It’s also physically acute to a point focusing on mere movement of his eyes as they take in information. Hoffman masterfully moves from a casually comic raconteur to a puppet master to a loser in a Faustian deal.
Hoffman, director Bennett Miller and writer Dan Futterman turn the journalistic notion of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable on its ear with this beautifully shot, paced and scripted movie.
Only on the very surface does Capote’s intention in traveling to Holcomb, Kan. seem honorable. He decides the horrific slaying of the Clutter family in 1959 is what he’d like to write about next for the New Yorker. Capote’s childlike voice to throw shadows on the ways he shrewdly strangles every conversation to his will and bloats egomania to the point where he’ll pay for a compliment.
Seeing through his façade is fellow writer Harper Lee, played by the ever-brilliant Catherine Keener. A no-BS friend to Capote who accompanies him to Kansas, Lee frowns upon the holier-than-thou swath he cuts after seeing a book in the material, intent on creating the new genre of the “non-fiction novel.”
Capote’s demeanor is equal parts East Coast elitism and self-righteous wielding of the power of the press. But it helps him court favor with lawman Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), who, in one scene, nearly trades a lead in the case for continued company with Capote. That tip nabs the drifting killers responsible — Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.).
After bribing the jail warden for visitation with Smith, Capote unexpectedly becomes attached to Smith’s particular plight — after all, he seems a meek yes-man to Hickock’s pompadoured alpha-dog. Capote fleetingly sees this bond as a way to exorcise his own demons and maybe, just once, actually connect with someone. As he says, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house, and one day he went out the back door while I went out the front.”
But fame’s grandeur and a need for narrative take precedence. As death looms for Smith and Hickock, Capote’s ethically ambiguous actions begin exacting a toll on everyone — most of all him.
As a title, In Cold Blood clearly refers as much to Capote’s chase of the book as it did to the way in which Hickock and Smith murdered the Clutters. Capote is equally ruthless and straightforward in dealing with grim drama as chilling as a Midwestern wind.
Even as self-loathing and shame claw at Capote, the reality of the execution awaiting Smith fails to hit him. Miller shows it in one scene that cuts between Capote and Smith, who is watching an executed corpse carted away like garbage. And, in Collins Jr.’s final scene, a recount of the Clutters’ murder feels all the more horrible for its quick-camera restraint and violent flashes.
Capote is a movie where hell pulls at its title character from all sides and, against conventional biopic structure, wins out. One of 2005’s best, this is a powerful, unsympathetic, no-frills portrayal of how steady moral decay corroded Capote’s powers of expression.