There’s a long-shot in Bennett Miller’s Capote of a train traveling across the horizon line through the barren plains of Kansas that becomes one of film’s standout sequences of visual imagery. The train simultaneously breaks up the landscape but as it traces the desolate fields it fits so perfectly at the same time. The same could be said for Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a member of New York’s well-to-do and literati who can move within Holcomb, Kansas due to his disarming wit and charm. Capote’s world and that of Kansas could not be more distinct, but he sees something that resonates deeply within him in that part of America.
The film Capote follows the titular author’s years researching the horrific murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas for what would eventually become the landmark nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. When Capote and his research assistant Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) travel to Holcomb, he quickly realizes there’s too much material for a magazine piece; he then endeavors to craft a novel on the town’s reaction to the murders. Dressed dapperly in his expensive New York clothes and trademark scarf he integrates himself in small town Kansas and gains the trust of the investigating sheriff Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper). He also becomes very involved with the assailants Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), which becomes the film’s primary focus after they are found guilty. While in prison the relationship between Capote and Perry Smith grows as the murderer goes through appeals and eventually sits on death row.
Hoffman’s performance as Capote works so effectively because we see the multiple, often-conflicting aspects of the author’s personality. Many scenes depict Capote’s well mannered charm among his high class intellectual world, but beneath this exterior is a darkness that the film explores. What would draw a man like Capote to Perry Smith? The film implicitly suggests a sexual attraction between the flamboyant Capote and Smith but more fully develops the two’s similar backgrounds. Like Smith, Capote came from a broken home and throughout their discussion Capote sees more of himself in the convicted murder. Capote, unique all his life through his speech and open homosexuality, probably felt a connection with Perry who grew up an orphan. Capote states at one point: “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he went out the back door and I went out the front.” His work becomes an investigation into himself as much as the murders to explain how important our births become in determining our futures. Their two diverging paths could not be more different.
Capote’s inner conflicts become most heightened when he abandons Perry to achieve literary greatness. At first he helps the two murders, finding them proper lawyers in order to appeal their sentences. But once Capote realizes the great potential of his book he realizes his need for their executions. In a haunting scene Capote uses his trusting demeanor to tell Perry about his exhaustive efforts to help him when in fact we know it’s a complete lie. Pressured with the deadline for his book’s publication, stays of execution throw Capote into depression. When the executions finally get set, the news gives Capote joy but even he fully understands the price of that relief.
The written epilogue more fully conveys the film’s underlying thesis of In Cold Blood being the product of a Faustian-like bargain by stating Capote never finished another written work after that novel. Capote paid for literary fame with his emotional well being rather than his soul. This may be true in some regard but such an analysis seems too convenient and heavy handed. It is no doubt witnessing Smith’s and Hickock’s execution stayed with Capote his entire life.
Capote works well as a portrait of one of 20th century’s most unique figures at height of his craft. But as the film seems so aware of In Cold Blood’s future acclaim, so we are aware of the inevitable conclusion making the story drag towards the end. Nevertheless, look for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s name come Oscar time.
Archived article by Oliver Bundy
Sun Staff Writer