In the early morning hours of November 15, 1959, a pair of recently paroled convicts entered the home of the Herbert Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, and murdered all its inhabitants: Herb, his wife Bonnie, and their two youngest children, Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15. The story briefly made national news, due to the brutal nature of the crime and the absence of any obvious motive: The Clutters kept no cash and few valuables in the house; the only item noticed missing was Kenyon’s small transistor radio.
Truman Capote, flush with success following the previous year’s publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and looking for a subject that would enable him to write a lengthy piece of literary nonfiction, seized upon a brief notice of the killings that was buried on page 39 of the November 16 New York Times. He showed the article to William Shawn, then editor of The New Yorker; received Shawn’s approval to write about the murders for the magazine; and decamped to Kansas with his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, who had recently completed what would be her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Over the next five-and-a-half years Capote and Lee made several long visits to Kansas, interviewing friends and relatives of the Clutters, the townspeople of Holcomb, and the murderers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. Capote and Lee attended the killers’ trial and, eventually, Capote witnessed their execution. Finally, in 1966, he published his account of the murders, In Cold Blood, which would become his most acclaimed book and earn him a small fortune but, arguably, would also be the beginning of his personal and professional decline.
Capote, the new film directed by Bennett Miller from Dan Futterman’s screenplay, focuses on those six years of Capote’s life, beginning with the Clutter murders and closing with the executions of Hickock and Smith. These were crucial years for Capote, a microcosm of his life’s trajectory, his gradual metamorphosis from an elfin literary prodigy and social butterfly into a fat, vodka-saturated toad who had alienated most of his high-society friends and could no longer stay sober long enough to complete a book.
Capote is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also served as an executive producer, and he delivers a completely effective recreation of the writer’s manner and high, slightly nasal voice. The externals all fit: the swayback stance, the fluttery hands in conversation, the arms clasped across the chest when in repose. (And from certain angles, with the right lighting, Hoffman looks uncannily like the middle-aged Capote.) It’s a remarkably subtle, restrained performance, given that the actual Capote’s manner so often verged on self-parody. But the role creates a conundrum that even an actor of Hoffman’s gifts can’t fully solve: How do you give some sense of the inner thoughts of a man who gave no hint of them in life, who hid constantly behind a mask? We get glimpses here and there of what may be a genuine feeling, as when Capote tells a young friend of Nancy Clutter’s, “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. You know what I mean?” But in other moments that seem sincere, the impression is soon undercut, as when he sits with Smith in his death-row cell, expressing what seems like real fondness, but in the next scene, when Lee asks if he holds Smith in esteem, Capote replies, “Well … he’s a goldmine.” (Capote was fond of Smith — even infatuated with him — but he loved his career more and was willing to manipulate Smith to further it.) And when, on a visit to the home of Kansas Bureau of Investigation Agent Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) and his wife Marie (Amy Ryan), Capote spontaneously speaks of his own mother’s sudden suicide, it’s clear to the viewer, though not to the guileless Deweys, that he’s offering quid pro quo, manipulating Dewey into sharing details about the investigation.
Despite the care Capote takes to conceal himself, there are two people who see right through him but love him anyway: his childhood friend Lee (Catherine Keener), who, in writing Mockingbird, modeled the character Dill on Capote, and his companion Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood). Keener, who is always wonderful to watch, is an ideal Lee, a solid, tough, but good-humored woman with a soft spot for Capote a mile wide. Her first scene sets the tone: Settling into the train that will carry them to Kansas, she and Capote are interrupted by a porter who delivers both their bags and effusive praise for Capote’s work. When he leaves, she accuses Capote: “You paid him to say that!” Capote responds: “How could you tell?” and they break into laughter. Lee and Dunphy, also a strong, no-nonsense presence in Capote’s life, help to ground him; their realism and full understanding of his character provide a counterbalance to his flights of fancy.
I wish there were more of Lee and Dunphy, and maybe more of Perry Smith as well. Clifton Collins Jr., who plays Smith, doesn’t have the same brutish magnetism that Robert Blake brought to the role in the 1967 film of In Cold Blood (many years before Blake would, ironically, find himself charged with murder in real life), but he has a scrubby, beaten-puppy intensity of his own, and it would have been interesting to watch him explore the character further. At any rate, something should have been done to take some of the focus off Capote, to give the audience a chance to connect with another character, since Capote’s inscrutability makes it all but impossible to empathize with him.
Miller unfortunately lacks one of Capote’s gifts — on ample display in In Cold Blood — his ability to put you inside a character’s head, to make you understand him and imagine yourself in his place. But he does a great job of recreating the tone of Capote’s book, using a palette of sober greys and browns and showing lots of flat, wintry wheat fields and broad horizons whose austere beauty elegantly fills the wide screen. (The film was actually shot in Manitoba, Canada.) His pacing is thoughtful and deliberate without feeling slow, as Capote’s was in his book, but unlike Capote, who was given to excesses of lyricism, Miller’s approach is shrewd and clear eyed, almost clinical. He never pushes the audience. This is a quiet film, with no frenetic performances, no big “Aha!” scenes, and very little music. What score there is, by Mychael Danna, is spare and unobtrusive, like something Phillip Glass might write if someone were to point out to him that a piano has more than three keys to plink at.
Perhaps the most effective scene — and certainly the one most flattering to Capote — is a recreation of the first public reading of selections from In Cold Blood. The passages — read in what is, to all intents and purposes, Capote’s voice — have the same hallucinatory power they have on the page, maybe even a little more. I’d be willing to pay money just to see Hoffman sit and read aloud in character for 90 minutes. Soon enough, though, the magic moment has passed, and we see Capote sitting and stewing over the way the case has dragged on, delaying the completion of his book. He feels he can’t finish until he knows if the killers will hang, or if their ongoing efforts to get the convictions overturned — efforts that have taken them all the way to the Supreme Court — will bear fruit. Unable to end the project and unable to focus on anything else, Capote’s drinking, which was always a frequent pastime, increases, and he begins his long downward slide.
Parts of Futterman’s script are scrupulously faithful to Gerald Clarke’s official biography of Capote (which is credited as the basis for the film), making ample use of quoted dialogue (some is also taken from In Cold Blood) and anecdotes, sometimes even mimicking the structure of Clarke’s chapters on Capote’s Kansas years. But ultimately the film, unlike Clarke’s generally sympathetic book (and even George Plimpton’s more critical oral biography), is a bit of a hatchet job, holding Capote responsible for the killers’ executions. As Hickock and Smith desperately seek a way to avoid the gallows, the film exaggerates Capote’s role in aiding their defense, so that it seems even more venal when he turns a cold shoulder to them as he tires of the endless appeals process. He wanted those boys dead, the film insists, so that he could finish writing his chef-d’oeuvre.
This isn’t without some basis: Several of Plimpton’s interviewees reported Capote’s impatience with the legal system and his glee when it appeared that the long-delayed executions would finally take place. Capote was certainly mercenary about the situation and more than willing to profit in both dollars and reputation by the misfortunes of the Clutters and their killers. But nothing I’ve read has suggested that he deliberately withheld aid when it was requested. And what if he had — are we to feel that he was morally lax in not trying harder to get two confessed premeditated murderers off death row? (In service to its thesis, the film downplays the element of premeditation.) I think the death penalty is a barbaric abuse of government power, and even I have a hard time getting worked up over Hickock and Smith’s executions. I can only imagine how someone who supports capital punishment would feel.
There’s a particularly distasteful scene toward the end, in which we see Capote strolling down death row, preparing to pump Smith for information he needs to complete his book, that feels like a reversal of The Silence of the Lambs — Hannibal Lecter is coming to see Clarice. Capote is made to seem the Machiavellian exploiter and Smith his helpless dupe, when the truth is that their relationship was, if not completely symbiotic, at least mutually parasitic. For all the publicity and accolades Capote got out of the deal, he also gave Smith attention, affection, understanding, and sympathy that he got from no one else. And for anyone who’s read the story, this scene doesn’t even make any sense — Capote had had access to the information he’s seeking for years through Smith and Hickock’s written confessions.
What I really don’t understand is why the filmmakers thought they needed to trump up these accusations to begin with. It makes it seem as though they don’t trust their material, as though they thought the truth about Capote wasn’t sufficiently dramatic on its own. This is both a failure of confidence and of nerve, and it’s a disservice to Capote, who, for all his flaws, was first and foremost a writer of real talent and importance. Isn’t it bad enough that he was also a dishonest, manipulative, petty, self-promoting, social-climbing, fame whore? Is it really necessary to exaggerate such a man’s faults?
Though, come to think of it, it’s just the sort of thing Capote might have done.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.Capote / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()