Director Jonathan Kaplan’s superb rethinking of “In Cold Blood” won’t displace anyone’s memory of Richard Brooks’ haunting 1967 film of the Truman Capote “nonfiction novel,” and it isn’t meant to. Working with an expansive new adaptation by Benedict Fitzgerald, Kaplan (“The Accused,” “Heart Like a Wheel”) fills in much of the detail that Brooks found irrelevant; while the black-and-white film emerged as a cautionary tale about violence in America, the miniseries achieves its impact through intimacy with a greater range of characters and the interweaving of inexorably linked stories about the tightly knit Clutter family of Holcombe, Kan.; the two ex-convicts who murdered them; and the FBI man determined to track the killers down.
Result may indeed be a star vehicle for Anthony Edwards and Eric Roberts (as the killers) and Sam Neill (as the lawman), but it’s also an effectively moody, grim downer that makes few concessions to the usual telepic demands. It’s a first-class effort all the way.
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The biggest change is the heartbreaking depiction of the Clutter family as more than a two-dimensional portrait of ’50s Bread Belt Americana. Kevin Tighe has a still-centered dignity as the prosperous, not entirely likable Methodist wheat farmer who just can’t abide his daughter’s attraction to a Catholic boy; Gillian Barber acracked veneer of fragility as his damaged, prescient wife. Youngsters Margot Finley and Robbie Bowen radiate britches-busting youth on the verge of adulthood as the Clutter teenagers.
Edwards does a neat turnaround from dedicated Dr. Mark Greene of “ER” to nasty, odd-eyed Dick Hickock, while Roberts is insinuatingly morose as Perry Smith, warding off demons with a bottleneck slide along the neck of his Gibson Hummingbird guitar. Neill is just fine as the sensitive G man. All the secondary roles are well cast, with dead-on appearances by Gwen Verdon and Bethel Leslie as a kind of Greek chorus, along with a terrific cameo by Stella Stevens as a blowzy hotel keeper. Cinematographer Peter Woeste has a keen eye for the slowly unfolding stretches of farmland that make Alberta pass for Kansas; he and Kaplan pay homage to Brooks by shooting Perry’s flashback scenes in B&W.
The soundtrack makes use of Perry’s actual tunesmithry, and Hummie Mann’s music adds to the overall introspective atmosphere. Forsaking pyrotechnics and taking, instead, a more considered, not to mention less politically charged, view (no one will mistake this telefilm for an anti capital punishment treatise) , “In Cold Blood” can now be said to have completed its transformation from groundbreaking literature to provocative film to thoughtful, compelling TV.