Truman Capote (1924-1984) was an American writer as much in the public eye for playing court jester to New York cafe society as for the three novels and various short stories he published. In Cold Blood, his 1966 "nonfiction novel," was a significant and arguably his greatest achievement. Bennett Miller’s film, Capote, from a smart debut screenplay by Dan Futterman, based on the biography by Gerald Clarke, is an incisively penetrating character study of the writer, centered on the period during which he researched and wrote In Cold Blood.
The book is an account of the 1959 murder of the Clutters, a family of four, on their isolated farm on the plains of Kansas, a geographic location which plays strongly in the book and is superbly captured in the film by cinematographer Adam Kimmel with short, effective takes of fields of wheat, flat wintry landscapes and the solitary farmhouse.
Capote took his friend Harper Lee (later to win a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird) along as his research assistant and traveled to Kansas on assignment for The New Yorker, but what started out to be a magazine piece quickly grew into a full length book. Lee (Catherine Keener) seemed to know Capote better than anyone and had little compunction about calling him on his self-deceptions. The film weaves a complex picture of Capote, from the unhappy childhood that left him plagued with fears of abandonment, to his self-consciousness over his high, effete-sounding speaking voice and fey mannerisms, to his acerbic wit and his acute powers of observation and recall.
The latter are graphically realized in the film as Capote is seen to visually and aurally soak up the vast amounts of factual and impressionistic detail that he so skillfully pulled together into In Cold Blood. But another, less admirable aspect of his character is spotlighted as well: Capote calculatedly charmed, gifted, and outright bribed the people in Kansas he needed to get access to the information he wanted for his book.
And with no one was he more persuasive than with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.), one of the pair of psychopathic killers who were captured and convicted of the murders. Smith had his own childhood history of abandonment with which Capote readily identified. Capote spoon-fed Smith when Smith went on a hunger strike, brought him books to read, talked to him with sympathy and encouragement, even found a lawyer to handle Smith’s appeal. All was calculated to get Smith to tell in his own words the story of what happened on the night of the murders, which he finally does, never realizing that Capote repeatedly has lied to him and ultimately will abandon him when his purpose is accomplished.
Capote needed the closure of execution to complete his book; when (without his help) stays of execution delay the event, Capote is seen wallowing in self-pity. "It’s torture what they’re doing to me," he whines, "If they win, I’ll have a breakdown." Capote’s final visit to Smith before the hanging is sulphorous with his crocodile tears and his dispassionate observation of the hanging makes it clear that cold blood flowed in other veins than just the killer’s.
The scenes between Smith and Capote are at the emotional heart of the film. Smith is pictured as sensitive, even if a psychopath, emotionally needy, thoughtful, remorseful. Collins gives a finely modulated performance that artfully complements the work of Philip Seymour Hoffman (State and Main, Owning Mahowny, Cold Mountain) who plays Capote in the single most remarkable performance on the screen this year to date. Hoffman the actor virtually disappears into the character of Capote and conveys the man’s weaknesses and strengths, his icy purposefulness, his superficial affectations and the depths of his personal emotional despair, a despair that led him to drink himself to death.
Capote’s ultimate hypocrisy is challenged when he says to Lee, "There was nothing I could do to save them." Lee replies coolly, "The fact is you didn’t want to."