4 stars (out of four)
Too many film biographies rely on the mimetic skill and charisma of the actor in charge, as did "Ray" last year, thanks to Jamie Foxx. The Ray Charles biopic was a limited sort of achievement, a case of a fine performer competing against the old A-to-Z, and-then-he-wrote cliches and storytelling formulas.
"Capote" is different, and it is exceptional in every sharp-eyed, low-keyed detail. Covering a six-year chapter in Truman Capote's attention-grabbing life, it concerns how the Alabama-born author and Manhattan party darling who wrote "Breakfast at Tiffany's" researched, wrote and survivedat severe personal cost as well as immense public acclaimhis book "In Cold Blood," about the 1959 murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kan. Philip Seymour Hoffman turns out to be a marvelous Capote, and he's marvelous in ways you may not expect. Playing one of the most outsized roles of his career, he has responded with his subtlest screen work to date.
Screenwriter Dan Futterman adapts roughly 50 pages, or one-tenth, of Gerald Clarke's absorbing Capote biography. With seductive restraint, director Bennett Miller's low-budget, $7 million wonder presents Capote in many different and contradictory shades of gray, as a crafty, manipulative, sensitive, sodden, uncompromising and brutally compromised writer, in thrall to the story of a lifetime.
This is a movie about two worlds, the one Capote comes from and the one he comes to know on an all-access visitors' pass, virtually unthinkable in today's journalism. "Capote" begins under gray skies in Kansas, with the discovery of the four bodies in a desolate rural home. The flat plains landscape suddenly transforms into another landscape, deceptively quiet, that of Manhattan at night with cocktail party chatter barely audible on the soundtrack. Then, bam: We're with Capote at a party, mid-anecdote, fully in his social element. It's a fluid and inspired visual transition. With calm authority director Miller, making his feature film debut, and editor Christopher Tellefsen let us know we're in good hands.
In his Brooklyn apartment Capote spies a newspaper item on the Clutter family killings. With approval and a generous expense account from New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban), Truman and his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), not yet the celebrated author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," travel to Kansas to research Capote's piece on the aftermath of the murders.
Then another, stranger story emerges. Capote befriends the killers Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and especially Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), whom Capote plays like a fiddle, while Smithwho gets Capote to help with their legal defense, as well as more prosaic matters such as art suppliesplays him right back. The killer, an orphan with abandonment issues like Capote, sees the writer as a guardian angel. The writer sees the killer as a vulnerable human being and a potential bestseller.
"Capote" acknowledges Truman's effrontery, both calculated and natural, in witty strokes, without overstatement. In a police station, where he first meets Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), Hoffman offhandedly fingers the scarf around his neck and says to a stern-faced cop: "Bergdorf's." Bribing the correctional facility warden to secure unlimited access to his narrative subjectsit didn't really happen the way it happens in the movie, but it feels right nonethelessHoffman's Capote becomes part-flirt, part-tough guy.
The years drag on, and the killers' legal appeals prevent Capote from going home for good. "I can't finish the book 'til I know what happens," he says. His lover, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), a less starry writer, understands yet grows impatient, wondering if Capote is on dangerously personal ground with his subject.
"Capote" shrugs off the usual narrative baggage and hurry-up pacing. We don't suffer the usual biopic childhood flashbacks, tied to one or two cinematically punchy sources of lifelong trauma. We don't endure the usual facile summations of what it all means. Rather, with a sustained mood of foreboding remarkable in a first featuredirector Miller previously made a documentary about a New York City tour bus guide, "The Cruise," soon to be re-released on DVD"Capote" lets the details add up in increments. The film takes care to show us Capote alone, writing, thinking or whooping it up (in scenes largely improvised by Hoffman) over cocktails in the public arena. Eventually the drinking becomes too much. Truman acts the prima donna more openly; after the publication of "In Cold Blood," a period only hinted at in this judiciously focused film, he slides into the Capote we'd later see on the couch next to Johnny Carson, camping it up, doing everything but talking about his next book because there wasn't one.
The film is a showcase for its star, who musters an amusing and precise evocation of the Capote vocal inflections and physicality. Yet the actor never does too much, and never seems to be settling for an impersonation. In other films Hoffman has proven a reliable scene thief, but his character turns have sometimes come at a price: He'll linger a little too long to deliver a line for effect, with that doughy, open-mouthed grin, or find a way of ever-so-slyly shifting focus from his co-stars. There's a scene in "Magnolia" where Hoffman, playing a male nurse, is talking to another actor and after a second or two you realize he's standing not in profile but instead with his body angled straight toward the camera. In the theater this is called "cheating out." In the movies this is called "calling attention to yourself."
None of that here. In one of the most attention-grabbing of roles, dominating virtually every scene of the film, Hoffman lets go of the need to dazzle. It took this role to break Hoffman, a hugely skilled actor, of every trick that worked for him in the past.
The rhythm of the film slackens somewhat in the later Perry/Truman prison sequences. And as solid as Keener is as Harper Lee, "Capote" could have used a moment or two where her role as sounding board and confidant gave way to something fuller. (Late in the game, we see a sloshed Capote dissing her at a party honoring the film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird.") These are small issues. Hoffman, director Miller and screenwriter Futterman, friends since high school, have set a high bar indeed for contemporary film biography. The movie's excellence, a stylistic world apart from the strikingly photographed but rather hysterical 1967 film version of Capote's masterwork, is in capturing its subject without pinning him down. "Capote" shows how much $7 million can get you, if the right artists get involved.
Directed by Bennett Miller; screenplay by Dan Futterman, based on the book by Gerald Clarke; cinematography by Adam Kimmel; production design by Jess Gonchor; music by Mychael Danna; edited by Christopher Tellefsen; produced by Caroline Baron, William Vince and Michael Ohoven. A United Artists and Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:55. MPAA rating: R (for some violent images and brief strong language).
Truman Capote - Philip Seymour Hoffman
Nelle Harper Lee - Catherine Keener
Perry Smith - Clifton Collins Jr.
Alvin Dewey - Chris Cooper
Jack Dunphy - Bruce Greenwood
William Shawn - Bob Balaban