THE day, in 1959, after a pair of drifters broke into the home of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan., and shot all four of its members after failing to find the $10,000 they believed to be stashed there, Truman Capote clipped an item about the murders in the New York Times and immediately called William Shawn at the New Yorker.
That night, the flamboyant author of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and popular man-about-Manhattan boarded a train to Kansas with his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee with the intention of writing a magazine piece on how the murders had affected the quiet farming community. Six years later, he published “In Cold Blood,” a “nonfiction novel” that made him the most famous writer in America, a millionaire, and ruined his life.
Bennett Miller’s “Capote,” which was written by Dan Futterman and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman (both childhood friends of the director), carefully re-creates the agonizing stretch of years between Capote’s first trip to Holcomb and the spectacular success of his book six years later. Arriving on the heels of the execution by hanging of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, the book was hailed for its objectivity and steady-handed sang-froid. But Capote’s own experience of the story was harrowing and deeply personal. What began as an investigation of “two Americas” -- one quiet and conservative, the other rootless and violent -- evolved, by all accounts, into a chillingly intimate portrait of the killers, in whose lives the writer would eventually play a not-insignificant role.
As the story of an artist whose greatest success brought about his downfall, “Capote” would seem at first to fall within the parameters of the traditional Hollywood biopic. And certainly, Capote’s Southern Gothic childhood (neglected by a restless, alcoholic mother, sent to live with relatives at a young age) would have made for convenient peg-the-root-of-the-pathology flashbacks, a la “Ray,” “Beyond the Sea” and others. But Miller and Futterman (who based his screenplay on the biography by Gerald Clarke) avoid the pitfalls of the genre by refusing to mythologize the artist, plunging instead into the soul of the man. Where it might have perfunctorily mounted him on the “troubled genius” mantle, the movie dispenses with the usual supersaturated (it’s all still so vivid!) flashbacks to childhood traumas, reconstructing instead a world as gorgeously stark, clear and straightforward as that of the book -- and of the flat, unforgiving Kansas landscape, with its dearth of places to hide.
But it doesn’t condemn him for his blinkered self-striving, either. (Capote seemed to have done a good job of that himself.) Instead, the film exhumes a figure obscured by notoriety and legend to discover a fiercely ambitious, deeply lonely narcissist whose fractured personality accommodated many, often contradictory, roles and whose greatest asset turned out to be his greatest liability.
In the film’s view, Capote’s fluid, adaptive morality, which could be described as postmodern, pegs him as a pioneer and harbinger for the cult of success-at-any-cost that would soon become the norm in America. And Miller and Futterman have captured an era on the verge of change by bringing into focus a man who not only helped to change it but also embodied its contradictions. In the hands of talented production designer Jess Gonchor and cinematographer Adam Kimmel, the movie shifts subtly from something out of an Andrew Wyeth painting -- shades of brown, blue and white against a slate-gray sky -- to something more ominous: a 16th century Dutch painting, the characters’ pale skin and grim expressions glowing against deep black backgrounds.
But much of the credit for the richness of the portrayal goes to Hoffman, whose nuanced and insightful portrait of Capote -- a man whose fey mannerisms and high, lilting voice could have easily led an actor into camp -- is as empathetic as it is brutally honest. Hoffman captures what is presented as an astonishing capacity for insinuation and connects it to a deep personal understanding of the basic human need for connection. When, in the film, Capote speaks of his unhappy past, it’s usually with the aim of gaining a trust he can’t help -- like the scorpion on the frog’s back -- but exploit.
As recounted in the film, Capote first fixes his sights on Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) during a hearing. The killer seems strangely removed from the proceedings and passes the time drawing. The next day, Capote shows up at the sheriff’s residence in Holcomb, where Smith is being held in a “women’s cell” in the kitchen. Capote is fascinated by Smith, a sensitive monster with an artistic temperament, given to dreaming about public recognition. While Hickock seems to relish the attention Capote brings them and sees him as a possible path to freedom, Smith instantly sees through their surface dissimilarities and recognizes a kindred spirit who recognizes him right back.
Capote’s identification with Smith -- of whom he says, “I feel like we grew up in the same house, and one day he stood up and walked out the back door, and I walked out the front” -- is presented as sincere. But so, in another context, is his merciless cruelty and self-absorption. Scenes of cell-bound exchanges between the writer and the murderer crash against scenes of Capote viperishly delighting literary types at cocktail parties by mocking him. In one sequence, he charms Nancy Clutter’s best friend, Laura Kinney (Allie Mikelson), into opening up to him by appealing to her teenager’s sense of alienation. “It’s hard when someone has a notion about you and it’s impossible to convince them otherwise. Ever since I was a child, people thought they had me pegged because of the way I am, the way I talk.... They were always wrong.”
Seated next to him, Lee (Catherine Keener) subtly rolls her eyes. She is Capote’s (unheeded) sense of shame, and the film’s conscience, reminding him in vain of his precarious ethical position each time he uses his awed, trusting Kansans as fodder for cocktail party banter or complains that the killers’ are “torturing” him with their endless appeals, making it impossible for him to finish his book. The message is clear: Capote’s involvement in the case is as problematic as his great idea: The “nonfiction novel” is more than a literary hot potato. It’s a dubious moral proposition.
At one point, Smith asks if he knows Elizabeth Taylor, and the writer replies, “I know a lot of people.” But who, really, are his friends? Or, more to the point, whom is he a friend to? Hickock and Smith continue to count him as one even as evidence mounts that his primary interest in them is as a much-needed sensational conclusion to his masterpiece. He’s also as impervious to the needs of Lee and of his lover, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), as he is dependent on their care and support. Both writers, the former much more celebrated than the latter (Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in which the character of Dill was based on Capote), Lee and Dunphy subsume their personalities to Truman’s and form a tacit bond to counter their growing sense of bewilderment.
The sometimes amused, often appalled view of Capote that Lee, Dunphy and Shawn (Bob Balaban, looking quietly unsettled) share echoes a feeling throughout the film that what is happening is bigger than Capote and the book. It’s a feeling of vague, bottomed-out dread as old New York gives way to new New York; fiction gives way to nonfiction; literature gives way to the tell-all; esteem gives way to stardom. Keener is particularly good at playing the loyal second-fiddle to Capote’s flashy orchestra conductor, and she provides the perfect counterpoint to his new brand of literary celebrity -- the modest, respected writer taking one last bow before the celebrity author walks onstage. Even in a tailored camel-hair coat and simple wool scarf (from Bergdorf’s), Capote looks like an exotic bird among the men in dark suits and fedoras that surround him. He also looks eminently contemporary. Ultimately, Capote was not only among the first celebrity writers to hobnob with movie stars in the pages of glossy magazines, he also experienced the public demise and personal dissipation that we now gleefully extract as the price of fame. His goal was to invent a “new way of writing.” In the process, he invented a new way of being an author.
MPAA rating: R for some violent images and strong language
Times guidelines: Includes violent images of murders and adult themes
United Artists and Sony Pictures Classics present an A-Line Pictures/Cooper’s Town Productions/Infinity Media production. Director Bennett Miller. Screenplay by Dan Futterman. Based on the biography “Capote” by Gerald Clarke. Produced by William Vince, Michael Ohoven. Executive producers Danny Rosset Kerry Rock. Director of photography Adam Kimmel. Edited by Christopher Tellefsen, A.C.E. Costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone. Music by Mychael Danna. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
At selected theaters.