directed by Bennett Miller
(Sony, 2005)

"It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he went out the back door and I went out the front," Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) says nearly halfway through Capote, thereby explaining why he's going to so much trouble to get inside the mind of one of two men, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), who stunned a nation with their brutal slayings of four family members in a botched robbery attempt.

Or maybe not. And that's part of the fun and much of the fascination of watching Capote, the Academy Award-winning film that tells the story of how Capote gathered the tale he made famous in In Cold Blood. It begins simply enough, with shots leading to a plain white farmhouse on a somber Kansas prairie, where a young woman is about to discover what Smith and Hickock have done. It cuts quickly then to a noisy house party halfway across the nation, where Capote is advising the New York literati to be honest in what they write. In the next 114 minutes, that mantra is going to be tested to the limits.

The film then follows Capote to Kansas, where, along with his "research assistant and bodyguard," Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, he begins to cover the effect the killings have had on the town for the New Yorker. But it isn't long before Capote is on the phone to New York, saying what he's found is too big for just one piece. It deserves a book. In short order he decides it deserves more than a book; it deserves a whole new kind of book: a nonfiction novel, "the book I was always meant to write," he says.

What follows is a fascinating series of images and conversations that work on several levels. On one level, they capture the intensity of a researcher -- make that two researchers -- at work; on another, they capture the personality of Capote himself -- a man who could be simultaneously sensitive and insufferable; who loved his friends but hated seeing them get the spotlight; who preached the need for honesty in research, but went on to deceive Smith shamelessly in order to get the story he wanted. It's hard to imagine a better choice for the part than Hoffman, who has delighted audiences in dozens of films, including Cold Mountain, Almost Famous and Magnolia. Whether he's just walking around town draped in his long scarf, sneaking into the local funeral parlor to steal a quick peak at the slain family members or spoon-feeding Smith baby food to keep him alive long enough to tell his story, Hoffman gives Capote the look of a man forever on the edge. He's even got the voice down, as anyone who's seen Capote in Murder by Death can tell you.

He also gets a hand from screenwriter Dan Futterman and Capote biographer Gerald Clarke, who fill his mouth with words you just can't wait to tell your friends.

"Ever since I was a child, folks have thought they had me pegged, because of the way I am, the way I talk. And they're always wrong," he says in one scene. "If I leave here without understanding you, the world will see you as a monster. Always. And I don't want that," he tells Smith in another.

Hoffman also gets a hand from cinematographer Adam Kimmel, whose long shots capture the cold flatness of the Kansas prairie, home to both the Clutter family farmhouse and Leavenworth Penitentiary, and Mychael Donna, who might have composed the quietest musical score ever written for a major motion picture. For instead of filling up Capote with catchy songs (always good for soundtrack CD sales), someone -- no doubt director Bennett Miller -- decided to let the natural sounds of events dominate.

And they do. In Capote the simple sounds of shoes on pavement or scissors cutting through paper or prison doors opening and closing say as much as the dialogue. And in this film, that's no mean achievement.

Finally, Hoffman has the advantage or working with a superb cast of supporting actors, most notably Keener, who was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress, and, as lead investigator Alvin Dewey, Chris Cooper, who won an Academy Award for his work as best supporting actor in Adaptation.

"Sometimes when I think of how good my book is going to be, I can't breathe," Capote says in one scene.

It's hard to imagine what he'd have said had he known his book would be turned into a major motion picture in 1967 -- and inspire another about himself -- nearly 40 years later. But there's no doubt his observation would not have been self-effacing. And there's no doubt Hoffman would have delivered it well.

review by
Miles O'Dometer

16 June 2007

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