Capturing the inspirational process of a quirky character can be a daunting task. You have to weigh informational material with a big personality, and keep these two balanced over the course of a changing story without getting bogged down with proving a truth or allowing an actor to get so overwhelming that you miss the entire point of the film.
Hence why Philip Seymour Hoffman is such a perfect choice to play Truman Capote in a film about the research that became the book In Cold Blood. Not only does he look like him and sound like him, but because Capote was such an enormous personality in his own right, the smallest glimpse into Hoffman’s movements or talk speaks volumes. He conveys so much with so little, and he’s able to provide an amazing performance of the four years it took to write his biggest seller.
Capote ventures to Kansas after reading about a murder in the New York papers, hoping to write an article for the New Yorker, but he gets so entranced by the local folk that he decides it’s too big, it has to be a book. He spends time with everyone in the town, slowly ingratiating himself, letting go of his ‘Bergdorf’ airs. He comes into contact with those charged in the murder case, and compulsively visits them with gifts and encouragement to form his story.
What remains beautifully unclear throughout is just how emotionally Capote gets involved with the prisoners. You’re never entirely sure if it’s only well-acted selfishness or if he truly wants to protect these men, and he seems confused about it as well. Thankfully director Bennett Miller keeps these questions coming instead of trying to offer absolutes about the situation that Capote continues to put himself in. At one point he’s discussing his subject, Perry (Clifton Collins Jr.), as if he were his own doppelganger. The end result is a powerful fluctuation of Capote wrestling with how he could have turned out differently from a similar childhood, self-aggrandizement at the expense of this man’s life, and compassion over seeing someone who could normally be a peer be put to death for a false move. I’ve never seen a film grapple with all of these major themes with such quiet grace.
There is some extra, and somewhat unnecessary, window dressing in terms of the friends who put up with Capote’s antics, especially Nell Harper Lee (a nice new role for Catherine Keener). Between the lover, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), that he always ignores and the martyr-ish Lee that he constantly insults, far too much screen time is spent doing the same mean things to the same caring people.
As engaging as Capote is to watch, you have to realize walking in that this is not going to be a happy scenario unfolding before their eyes. There is very little laughter or even a sigh of relief throughout. It’s a non-stop, well-crafted, depressing venture. There is bound to be Oscar buzz because men cry in the film, but let’s hope it doesn’t overwhelm the genuine respect the film deserves.
Reviewed as part of the 2005 New York Film Festival.
The DVD includes two audio commentary tracks and three making-of featurettes.
Capote and smoky.