A review of the brilliant, Oscar winning motion picture
Directed by: Bennett Miller
Cast: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins, Chris Cooper
In 1959, Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States, Fidel Castro methodically seized power in Cuba, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died in a small plane crash and Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states. On a dreary November day of that same year, two petty crooks drove to an obscure Midwestern town named Holcomb Kansas, where one of them brutally murdered a family of four, sending shockwaves reverberating throughout America. Truman Capote was a successful writer living in New York, who at age 23 had achieved notoriety with his first book, called Other Voices, Other Rooms and was enjoying greater critical acclaim for a breezy romantic novel he had recently completed titled Breakfast at Tiffany’s. With a yearning to satiate his creative hunger, Capote was looking for a sensational media event to chronicle in a non fiction story; one that would be unlike anything ever written. In mid November of 1959, while reading the New York Times, the 35 year old writer found what he was looking for.
Capote brilliantly tells the tale of how a gifted artist followed his instincts, hopped on a train to travel to America’s heartland and painstakingly assembled the narrative details of this infamous evening, by psychologically dissecting the mind of a killer. The film is a straightforward account of how this seemingly demure man used his disarming wit and superior skills of manipulation to collect the information required to fashion his masterpiece In Cold Blood. And though there is much debate over how he didn’t use notes while compiling his research (a detail the movie explains by demonstrating Capote’s astonishingly accurate sense of recall), it is certain he created a chilling depiction of the Clutter family massacre.
When Truman Capote (Hoffman), arrives in Kansas with his traveling companion Harper Lee (Keener), who later wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, they are treated with indifference by authorities investigating the murder. After Truman and Harper meet and ingratiate themselves with lead investigator Alvin Dewey’s (Cooper) wife Marie, the pair is introduced into the inner circle of the people examining the sordid details of the crime. When the suspects are finally apprehended, in an amusing sequence, Capote brings the Sheriff’s wife breakfast to bribe his way into meet accused killer Perry Smith (Collins Jr.)
Spending hours commiserating with him in his cramped jail cell, Capote befriends Smith when both men discover their common experience of suffering childhood abuses. After they are convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging, Truman lends his assistance in securing more competent legal counsel for Smith and his partner in crime Richard Hitchcock (Mark Pellegrino). This positions him as less of a journalist and more as an active participant in case; as the killers, particularly Smith, form an attachment to him. When Dewey reads the newspaper about the writer’s involvement on behalf of the condemned men, he warns Truman if they escape justice, he will come to New York, track him down and kill him.
With the original intent of writing a human interest article for New Yorker Magazine, it becomes clear to Truman that the Clutter family story would provide him with a sensational novel. With half of his manuscript completed, he sends it to William Shawn (Bob Balaban), his New York publisher. Astonished at the quality of the work, he informs Truman he will have a profound influence on the landscape of the literary world. Subsequently, Shawn has Capote perform a reading of excerpts from his unfinished novel, where he receives a standing ovation. After the enormous buzz created by this promotional event, the die is cast and Truman must follow the story to the increasingly bitter end to faithfully record the fate of Smith and Hickcock.
In his quest to complete In Cold Blood, Truman Capote was compelled to invest five emotionally draining years of his life. He became not only a witness but was actively drawn into the aftermath of a violent nightmare, to become the primary confidant of a consummately evil criminal. Yet Capote saw him as a sensitive, scared little boy underneath the nefarious veneer. This took a toll on his mental health and nearly caused him to miss the finale of the story. In a deeply revealing scene, publisher Shawn telephones Harper Lee to prevail upon her friend to visit the murderous duo on their last night on earth. It takes every measure of Truman’s moral courage to meet with Hickcock and Smith; and upon their final request, watch their executions.
For his work on Capote, director Bennett Miller has fully realized the classic story of how in his quest to gain the world, a man loses his soul. After writing In Cold Blood, Truman became the most celebrated author in America but never wrote another book. The film gives you an intimate look at how such a gifted novelist invested so much in one project, to the point where he never had the desire to complete another one. Additionally, Miller uses the bleak gray Kansas atmosphere to reinforce the ominous fate that lies ahead for the killers and the endless waiting game Capote faces as he awaits their execution.
Though released in late September, Capote is once again making the rounds at your local movie theatre, as it will certainly garner an Oscar nomination for Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though all the acting is uniformly excellent, Hoffman’s performance as the flamboyant Capote is masterwork of a journeyman performer. He is in nearly every single frame of the film and never loses character for a nanosecond. He is your guide in telling the story within the story. In a somewhat spotty year for meaty plot lines, this is a motion picture that offers a glimpse at one of the most interesting dramas ever told. In Cold Blood became an American version of a Greek Tragedy; one where even the storyteller was unable to remain unscathed.
Phillip E. Hardy
January 3rd, 2006