The creation of a milestone in both modern literature and journalism — which became a memorable 1967 movie — is explored to reveal yet more riveting layers in “Capote,” an unsettlingly intimate account of Truman Capote’s obsessive research into the brutal 1959 killings of a Kansas family that yielded the groundbreaking faction work, “In Cold Blood.” The mesmerizing performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the celebrated writer dominates every scene, while director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman’s penetrating study enthralls in every aspect, making this Sony Pictures Classics release sure to figure high among the fall’s prestige specialty draws.
Inherited by SPC from United Artists, “Capote” is the first of two indie projects on the same period in the subject’s life, each culled from major biographies — in this case, Gerald Clarke’s probing, compassionate 1988 book. Due in 2006 from Warner Independent Pictures is Doug McGrath’s “Have You Heard?”, based on George Plimpton’s 1997 assembly of recollections from those who knew Capote.
The first narrative feature from Miller (1998 docu-portrait “The Cruise”), and the first screenplay penned by actor Futterman (best known for roles in “The Birdcage” and “Will & Grace”), the film’s most notable qualities perhaps are its quiet perceptiveness and unhurried sense of purpose, showing a sure-footedness and maturity that usually are the domain of far more experienced filmmakers. Futterman takes small liberties with the events and persons but his approach is one of measured respectfulness.
There’s a graceful calibration and balance evident in the central positioning of Capote among opposites. Complete with an uncannily precise take on the prissy, infantile voice, and with all the author’s characteristically fey mannerisms — the batted eyelashes; the hands constantly fluttering to adjust his hair and glasses; the languid flourish with which he waves a cigarette, a martini or telephone; the perpetually raised pinkie — Hoffman’s Capote is Southern flamboyance taken to baroque extremes, yet at all times vulnerable and real.
One of his closest associates during the period portrayed here is Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), then on the cusp of fame with “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The polar opposite of her childhood friend, she’s the epitome of another kind of Southerner: down-to-earth, plain-spoken, unpretentious.
No less distinct from the central character is William Shawn (Bob Balaban), Capote’s sedate, gentlemanly editor at The New Yorker, who agreed to the author’s request to go to Kansas and write a story on the impact of the Clutter family killings on rural Holcomb. Likewise Capote’s straight-up, dependable longtime companion Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), and the taciturn, masculine Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent who led the hunt for the two ex-con drifters responsible for the murders, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.).
The depiction of Capote as a social alien — even when holding court at the Gotham soirees that were far more germane to him than Kansas farm country — adds poignancy to the sense of kindred, misunderstood spirits that evolves between the writer and Smith. The convicted killer transfixes Truman from his first sight of him to his much-delayed execution, fueling the writer’s creative genius but also destabilizing him emotionally. In many ways, this is a tragic story of unfulfilled love.
“It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house, and he stood up and went out the back door while I went out the front,” says Capote. The film succeeds remarkably in tracing the process by which Truman gained the trust and esteem of a man he described as “remote, suspicious, sullenly sleepy-eyed” — all qualities brought to wounded life in Collins’ deeply etched performance.
But what’s most affecting is the double edge of Capote’s literary achievement — he invented the “non-fiction novel” with “In Cold Blood,” which brought him for the first time to a mass audience — and the shattering personal cost at which it came. He never completed another book, later descending into alcoholism and obesity, burning bridges with his rich socialite pals.
Futterman’s script addresses with honesty the unpaid debt of a writer to his subject, as well as touching eloquently on the creative process, the bonding between misunderstood outcasts, the randomness of violent crime and the inhumanity of taking a life, on either side of the law. The film also acknowledges, as Capote did, the thin divide between quiet, conservative American life and its violent underbelly.
Hoffman never shies away from painting the subject as a vain, self-absorbed spotlight-seeker and a guileful manipulator, milking Smith and Hickock’s death row agony for personal and professional glorification. But even when impatiently awaiting an execution date to give his book an ending, when deceiving Smith or using vicious, dismissive words to hurt him, Truman never becomes an entirely unsympathetic monster; the impact on the writer of the two men’s complex association is made achingly palpable. Capote’s refusal to take notes during interviews allows for constantly locked eyes, which cranks up the intensity and intimacy of his encounters with Smith to almost painful levels in scenes shot in uneasy close-up.
Playing a brilliant man who presented himself as a caricature and was the target of endless comic impersonations for it, Hoffman’s achievement in giving him dignity and soul is impressive indeed. While the actor’s height works against physical accuracy as the diminutive author, the depths and sensitivity of his characterization overcome any doubts.
In addition to the arresting work of Collins, unerring support comes especially via subtle turns from Keener, Cooper and Pellegrino, while stage actress Amy Ryan has lovely moments as Dewey’s wife, whose welcome breaks down barriers for Truman with the Kansans.
In a movie refreshing for its lack of flash, the frugal use of handheld camera in Truman’s shaken final encounter with Hickock and Smith before their hanging is emotionally effective. Elsewhere, Adam Kimmel’s controlled camera work creates a textured, grainy visual field, its retro flavor enhanced by a desaturated color palette and a painterly eye for the empty, wintry landscapes. (Canadian locations stood in for the Kansas prairies.)
No less polished, in the same judicious, unshowy way, are composer Mychael Danna’s pensive score, the understated period look of production designer Jess Gonchor and costumer Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s work, and Christopher Tellefsen’s fluid editing, which builds suspensefully toward a full account of the night of the murders, and then, to the haunting executions.