Capote is at once intensely intimate, yet impenetrable and aloof. The contradiction is intentional, and asks the question, “How much can we truly know about why a man acts as he does?” It is the question that the audience asks of writer Truman Capote (a mimetic performance from Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who is in the process of researching and writing his non-fiction masterpiece In Cold Blood. The book focuses on two murderers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, who one evening in 1961 murdered a family on their Kansas City farm.
The film deliberates about whether Capote was truly interested in exploring these murderers, their lives and motivations, or whether it was just exploitation – a great story, something all writers dream of. Capote, himself, seems to be unsure of this. For much of the film he is their savior. He assists them in getting an appeal; a large part of his motivation, though, is to lengthen their life so as to get a fuller story. As the book nears completion, the writer Capote needs the case to be closed – for them to be executed – and the friend Capote seems to wane. Capote’s own motivations come under as close scrutiny as Smith and Hickock’s.
Structurally, the film is stripped down to this core conflict: is Capote writing his book In Cold Blood in cold blood? There are no extraneous sub-plots, or minor characters that allow for digressions. This is what makes the film so emotionally powerful: director Bennett Miller takes you through Capote’s own conflicting personal journey and never lets you off the hook. He presents Capote as he was: well aware of his own talents, but also recognizing of its burdens. In one scene Capote can be telling the name of his book to his editor William Shawn, and in the next tell Perry Smith that he hasn’t even thought of titling the book before he knows the whole story. Capote is a bastard, but he, like the audience, is aware of both the importance of what he is writing, as well as of the ethical complications that accompany it.
This is Bennett Miller’s second feature film as director, and his first fictional narrative (his previous credit was a documentary on New York City), yet Capote has more maturity than the most seasoned filmmakers. Whereas someone like Wes Anderson seems too caught up in his own self-admiration, with each new film a bigger tribute to his last effort, Miller’s unique newness to cinema allows him to create a film unperverted by his past successes and failures.
But as strong and modest as Miller’s directing is, and regardless of the convincing naturalism of the actors, photography and writing, Capote as a collective puts the cap on them all individually. If Hoffman stands out amongst the crowd, it is only because his character is peak of the mountain, the summit that everything worked toward. In Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994), there is a story of a bird that, if it touches the ground, it dies. In the end, it is a pervasive excellence, emitting from every nook and cranny of Capote, that keeps it from being a fielded grouse.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.