Manitoba, Canada, stands in for Holcomb, Kansas, and gifted character actor Philip Seymour Hoffman takes on the guise of “In Cold Blood” author Truman Capote in director Bennett Miller’s much-lauded new film. “Capote” languidly follows the eccentric literary darling from late 1959 to the mid-’60s as he works on the book that would change the face of non-fiction writing.
At the heart of “Capote” is Hoffman’s fascinating interpretation of an iconoclast who carries enough curious mannerisms to carry a small museum. Sure, the actor has the outward signs of Capote down pat — the pale features, the high-pitched, whiny baby voice — but his performance goes farther than that. Even while holding court at parties with New York’s elite, Hoffman plays him like a wounded animal whose acerbic wit barely masks his own insecurities.
|Hoffman and Keener party like its 1959|
Capote travels to Kansas, an unlikely place for a homosexual East-Coast intellectual to gain unfiltered access to the inner-workings of a small community and sheriff’s office. To help gather information from the locals about the much-publicized Clutter family murders, he brings longtime friend and writer Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who is about to rival Capote’s fame with the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
When two young men are captured and charged in the murders, Capote bullies his way in to visit them in jail. He befriends one of the killers, the forlorn Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.), recognizing in him a familiar sense of longing, spurred on by a crappy childhood — which, like Truman, has left Perry a bitter outsider.
“Capote” is at its best in these moments, as the writer and killer struggle back and forth. Perry gives Truman just enough information to warrant the writer’s help with his court appeals. Meanwhile, Capote schemes to get an honest description of the killings, all the while complaining to his friends that until the executions take place, he doesn’t have an ending for his book.
Less successful are superfluous detours with Capote’s live-in lover Jack (Bruce Greenwood) and William Shawn (Bob Balaban), his editor at the New Yorker magazine. The script, based on Gerald Clarke’s biography, meanders too much and thus relies on the actors and cinematography to infuse the film with profound contemplation. Keener is excellent as a melancholy sidekick- (anyone who hung out with an overbearing personality like Truman’s surely became one) turned-overnight success and Collins gives Perry a weighty sense of loss and longing. The sweeping shots of the plains are a nice contrast to the intimate close-ups of Capote in his darkest hours.
It’s difficult to portray a creative process like writing in an interesting way onscreen (see “Adaptation” for the most entertaining example). In this case, Capote brags on and on about his almost total memory recall on what his interview subjects say. (Mine is not so good, as I fail to recall the percentage he rattled off so proudly — maybe a 96%?) He also bragged about how great the book would be before writing a word. From Hoffman’s amazing performance, though, you can imagine the man writing the novel in his mind during all of his slow, studied research and manipulations. You can see it happening on his face.
Truman buckles under not only the journey of writing the book, but also the pressure of the success that came with it. Certainly there was a large dose of alcoholism involved as well. With a multi-layered performance by Hoffman to guide the movie rather than a clear-cut narrative, the movie is perhaps better labeled as a snapshot of the defining years of Captoe’s life. “Capote” suggests that its title character lost his soul writing the book that would make him a giant — he cared deeply for Perry, yet used him to his own end, and profited from it greatly. The loss he felt after Perry’s execution was mixed with his own guilt and what he saw of the convicted killer in himself. It is through these revelations that “Capote” is at its haunting best.