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Not a biopic, this film focuses on the six years that Truman Capote spent composing his trailblazing “non-fiction narrative,” “In Cold Blood,” and probes the nature of his bond with Perry Smith, who, with fellow ex-con Richard Hickock, shocked America by murdering the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas on a November night in 1959.   In the murders’ wake Capote, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, journeyed to Holcomb to cover the story for the New Yorker with lifelong friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) in tow as research assistant (this is a year before her great success with “To Kill a Mockingbird”).   I admit that I’ve still not read “ICB”, a disgraceful hole in my resume which I intend to rectify ASAP.   The CW on the book, of course, is that it ushered in the era of journalism aspiring to the status of literature, with its concomitant psychological depth, as well as the notion that the teller is as interesting as the tale.  

A cocktail party wit, raconteur and gay man who’d run far from his roots in the South to reinvent himself as a definitively urban figure, Capote nevertheless convinced rural people to open up to him because of his feel for areas of overlap in human experience.   He overlapped with no one more than with Perry, affectingly played by the sad-eyed Clifton Collins, Jr., with whom he shared a literary bent and families rife with suicides.   In one of the film’s most memorable lines Capote says of Perry: it’s as if we grew up in the same house, and one day I went out the front door and he went out the back.   Though the film doesn’t sentimentalize Perry, one could make the criticism that it continues the process whereby to this day the killers are remembered more vividly than their victims.

The film treats its late-50’s era small-town Midwesterners in non-cliched terms.   Holcomb’s sheriff (Chris Cooper), though a law-and-order guy and a bit uneasy about Capote’s motivations, is not a man to make a priori assumptions; his intelligent wife, thrilled to host the big city literati, confides that her husband read Capote’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” when he heard they were coming to town despite the book’s being banned in Holcomb.   In these scenes Keener says so much with her eyes; she’s got a writer’s gaze, all the time taking the measure of a situation and the dynamics between people.   She sees all, including her friend’s careerist motivations.  

Of course, the primary reason to see “Capote” is Hoffman.   Recently I’d thought he’d been letting his bemusedly worldly-wise/weary persona have rather too much the upper hand in that tussle between persona and character from which all performances are forged.   Here his persona compliments the character, and the product is an extraordinarily empathetic performance in which he becomes Capote from the inside out, so that even the skin feels lived in.   In a remarkable scene in which Capote visits Perry and Hickock at their last stop before the gallows, Hoffman surrenders himself completely to the emotional toll of events from which Capote never really recovered.   As the credits rolled, a chap in the seat behind me declared it to be his position that, come time to hand out academy awards, for Hoffman the securing of the “best actor” trophy is but a formality.  

Director Bennett Miller tells his tale in wintry colors, muted tones of white and gray, and horizontal compositions of Holcomb’s barren fields and the ever-reaching horizons of the plains.   It’s a pre-60s-tumult America whose fraught quiet is echoed by the hauntingly minimalist, ambient score.   Essential viewing.

- Nov 7, 2005

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