In an extraordinary year for biopics, Capote stands out as not only one of the best cinematic “true” stories, but one of the best films of 2005.
Capote begins with the real life murder of the Clutter family in 1959, and how that event inspired writer Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to travel to small town Kansas to follow the subsequent capture and trial of the suspected murderers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock. At first, Capote merely intends to write a magazine article about the murders, but his deep reporting and his subsequent friendship with Smith eventually blossom into his classic “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood.
When Capote first arrives in Kansas, he is met with skepticism and indifference. His friend, researcher, and traveling companion, future To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), assists Capote in making inroads with some of the locals. Soon, Capote is dining with the investigating FBI agent (Chris Cooper) and schmoozing his way to close proximity to the two prisoners.
As Capote delves deeper into the case, he grows closer to the ultra-sensitive Perry Smith, whom he feels a unique connection to. Capote selfishly arranges legal help for the two prisoners so that he can continue to write without fear of them being executed. The lines of Capote and Smith’s relationship begin to blur, though, as Capote callously witholds information about the book he is writing in order to gain more trust (and first hand information about the crime) from Smith. He feels for Smith’s plight, but he needs Smith’s cooperation even more. Without Smith’s description of the crime, he has no novel.
Essentially, Capote is a movie about an author as he struggles to write a book which doesn’t yet have an ending. But it’s the way Truman Capote went about writing In Cold Blood which makes Capote the film a compelling watch.
The entire mood of the film is somber, filmed on stark prairie landscapes and in lonely hotel rooms. It’s a quiet piece which lingers with you long after the lights come up.
Hoffman gives one of the best performances of the year. What could’ve been a portrayal that devolved into showy affectations (Capote’s high-pitched voice, his feminine mannerisms) instead becomes a fully fleshed-out person. His Capote is eccentric yet driven; he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get his story. He entertains his New York circle of friends with his wit and humor, so it’s easy to see why he is able to get key players in the murder case to talk to him, too. Hoffman doesn’t play Capote strictly as an unethical manipulator, though. There are moments when we glimpse the humanity behind the man, as when Capote sobs uncontrollably as he meets with Hickok and Smith one last time. It’s a heartbreaking, complicated, mesmerizing performance.
Catherine Keener shines in a steady, unshowy role as Harper Lee, Capote’s unofficial confidante/bodyguard. It’s her grounded portrayal which serves as the film’s moral center. She is there to scold Capote over some of his unsavory tactics, yet she’s still a flesh and blood character. Watch the disappointment in her face as Capote drunkenly and jealously downplays her Mockingbird debut.
Collins is moving as the cunning, yet far too-trusting, Smith. Despite Capote’s careless disregard for his close friends like Lee, not to mention his lover (Bruce Greenwood), it’s his exploited relationship with Smith which is the most heartbreaking.
This is an absorbing film about the brilliance of an artist who sets out to achieve greatness at any cost, even at the expense of his own soul. Hoffman deserves an Oscar, but the movie surrounding him is just as good.
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