Joan Didion once wrote something about how, no matter what they say to assure you otherwise, writers never have your best interests in mind when they convince you to talk to them. She puts it much better, and we wish we had the quote on hand, but it’s been a while since we carried "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" with us wherever we went (oh, you wish we were kidding â€” also, we suspect the line is actually in "The White Album," anyway). Early in Bennett Miller‘s "Capote," Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the titular writer, arrives at the house of Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper, who’s as always so compelling one wishes he would get allotted more than ten minutes of screen time per film). He’s looking for information on the crime Dewey is investigating â€” the brutal murder of a family of four â€” for an article in the New Yorker, credentials that didn’t go nearly as far, at his first meeting with Dewey, as they would have in New York. Now he, accompanied by his good friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), pre-publication of "To Kill a Mockingbird," sets out to charm. He gossips, he entertains, he drop celebrity names, and then, shamelessly, segues into a story about his mother’s death. That wins over Dewey’s wife, who demands of her husband that he give the two whatever they need. "These are good people!" she says, but the camera cuts to Hoffman’s face: held high, closed, but triumphant, even a bit smug. Truman Capote is not good people â€” in many ways, he’s a right bastard.
Miller’s film, from an excellent script by Dan Futterman, based off Gerald Clarke’s biography, assumes audiences are familiar with Capote’s pivotal "nonfiction novel" "In Cold Blood" â€” the underlying certainty of the man’s brilliance is left unspoken to counterweight the complicated and not-so-flattering portrait the film presents. It begins with Capote already well established as a writer and a society fixture â€” he goes to Kansas on a bit of a whim, and is initially out of his element, but soon inveigles himself into the reluctant good graces of the locals and, eventually, the two murderers.
It’s Perry Smith, the one who did the actually killing, who catches Capote’s eye. Half Indian, polite and intelligent, an orphan from a terrible background, he hopelessly intrigues Capote, and their relationship is the dark, complex heart of the film. Capote sets out, in a sense, to seduce Smith’s story out of him, but ends up getting more involved than he ever planned, becoming something between a friend and a vampiric figure, cajoling and bullying him for the sake of his book ("Sometimes, when I think how good my book could be, I can hardly breathe," he tells a friend) and sometimes stepping in, getting the pair a lawyer for their appeal, only to then disappear for months and not return the otherwise completely alone Smith’s pathetic letters. It’s hard to guess how Capote really feels about Smith beyond seeing him as source material; both Keener’s Lee and Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), Capote’s long-term lover, try to sound him out, but it appears that he doesn’t know himself, though he once eloquently lets slide that "It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house, and one day I went out the front door and Perry went out the back."
Hoffman’s performance is a tour de force â€” there’s no way he won’t be nominated for an Oscar. But it is so very much a virtuous act that sometimes the film seems to grind to a halt around him while he struts and frets, while generally outstanding actors like Keener and Greenwood are pulled into his orbit.
We’re totally rambling on, but this is a hard film to get one’s thoughts in order for. It’s very smart, and in the end very well done, but much of it is as icy as the bleak Kansas winter landscape elegantly shot in the opening sequences. The myth of journalistic remove, perhaps â€” in the end, we’re just as caught up as Capote in what happens to Perry Smith. By that time, for him, it was too late.
"Capote" opens in limited release on September 30.