Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote
Catherine Keener as Nelle Harper Lee
Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith
Chris Cooper as Alvin Dewey
Bruce Greenwood as Jack Dunphy
Bob Balaban as William Shawn
Amy Ryan as Marie Dewey
Mark Pellegrino as Dick Hickock
Allie Mickelson as Laura Kinney
Marshall Bell as Warden Marshall Krutch
Capote is as much a compelling portrait of an often misunderstood author as it is a powerful crime drama. It’s destined to become a film classic.
In the years between 1960 and 1965, author Truman Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) formed an unlikely friendship with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), a killer on death row accused of murdering a family of four in Kansas. His conversations with Perry and research into the murders would form the basis of his greatest literary work, “In Cold Blood.”
Over 20 years after his death, author Truman Capote remains an enigma beyond the public persona that was often on display. Capote isn’t a biodrama in the sense that it tries to explain Capote by showing his life story, instead taking a single chapter from his life, albeit one that spanned five years and forever changed everything about him. It’s the story of how Capote wrote “In Cold Blood,” and it’s a riveting look at the inner and outer workings of the mysterious writer.
In Kansas, a family of four has been murdered, and author Truman Capote, fresh off his successful novel “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is looking for material for a New Yorker article. He heads to Kansas with his best friend and personal assistant Nelle Harper Lee to research the piece, but the flamboyant New Yorker couldn’t be more of a fish-out-of-water, his unique fashion sense sticking out and making the locals uneasy, particularly the agent on the case, as played by Chris Cooper. Capote’s story finds new potential when he first sets eyes on Perry Smith, one of the alleged perpetrators, and realizes that he’s found a kindred wayward soul in him, as well as a muse for something much greater.
Although this film often moves slower than a snail, its driving force is indeed Philip Seymour Hoffman as he perfectly captures the author’s effeminate tone and mannerisms. This is most commonly seen as Capote holds court at various parties and functions, regaling tales of his “goldmine” back in Kansas, but this really is only one side of the man, the one that he chose to represent himself. Despite Capote’s frivolous public persona, he realizes the gravity of his latest work, and we see the “true man” come out whenever he’s alone in the cell talking to Perry Smith. It’s the type of journalist-convict relationship we’ve seen before, but in this case, you wonder if they really do connect or if they’re using each other for their own means from the very beginning.
Their close working relationship mutates over the course of the years, and towards the end, the movie gets a bit repetitious as Capote travels back and forth between New York and Kansas. After a while, the illusion that Capote is Perry’s trusted friend is dropped in favor of a colder façade as his patience wears thin, knowing that his book will never be complete until he knows what really happened the night of the murders. Even then, he feels like he’ll never be free of this uneasy alliance until both men are executed, something that tears him apart.
As much as everyone wants to heap deserved praise on Hoffman for his portrayal of Capote, the rest of the cast should not be overlooked, particularly Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith, who gives such a mesmerizing confessional speech towards the end that it changes all perceptions of Smith, especially when we actually see the results of that night. Most of the scenes between Smith and Hoffman are terrific.
Then there’s Catherine Keener taking on the decidedly unglamorous role of Truman’s best friend Harper Lee, who writes her one novel, the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” during these years. Wearing frumpy clothes and no make-up, Keener does wonders with this subdued role as the ying to Capote’s yang. Their relationship gets even more interesting when she finds success with her book at the same time as he’s floundering to finish his never-ending “non-fiction novel.”
Capote’s homosexuality is played down in the film, but his lover and close confidante Jack Dunphy, played by Bruce Greenwood, is ever-present, offering understanding and support, especially later in the story when Truman starts deteriorating into an alcoholic stupor. By the third act, you realize that Truman’s flippant nature hides a man who truly cares for Smith. As torn apart as he is by the prospects of Smith being executed, he knows that the thought of him living and seeing his book (or even the title) is a far worse fate.
Dan Futterman’s dialogue-intensive script is excellent–hard to believe it’s his first–and director Bennett Miller, better known for his documentary work, is actually the perfect candidate to bring this story to life. The events are shown slow and methodically as they transpire, rarely resorting to unnecessary hyperbole, although when we do see the shocking results of the violent murders, they jump out in contrast to the film’s muted color scheme of grey, whites and blacks. Overall, the entire film is beautifully shot and scored.
As a literary figure, Truman Capote may forever inspire mystery and intrigue, but thanks to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s masterful performance, we’re given a fine overview of the many sides to his complex personality. Who will ever know which one was the real Truman Capote?
The Bottom Line:
Capote is a truly rich and compelling film, a brilliant piece of cinema that succeeds at getting into the psyche of a man whose public façade took over his life. Those who have read “In Cold Blood” will appreciate knowing more about the story behind the story, but anyone who enjoys a well-done crime drama should enjoy this, as well.
Capote opens in New York and L.A. on Friday.