Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Director: Bennett Miller
Screenwriters: Dan Futterman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Clifton Collins Jr., Catherine Keener
Truman Capote’s last, unfinished novel bore the epigraph, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones. Capote, Bennett Miller’s profoundly upsetting selective biography, sets out to discover why, and the answer it comes up with is both interesting and original. More importantly, though, the film has none of the soothing detachment that usually characterizes prestige biopics. Rather, this tale of tragic narcissism may hit a little too close to home, for who among us hasn’t wished for the world to turn our way, and everyone else be damned?
A main reason this works so well, I think, is that the film creates the impression of discovery. Screenwriters who base their work on “themes” so often end up contriving every element of the screenplay to serve their “message;” everything becomes a device, and characters and story are manipulated to best fit the writer’s thesis. Now, it’s easy to argue that Capote, written by Dan Futterman from a book by Gerald Clarke, was crafted using the same principle — that is, the screenwriter knew what he wanted to say from the get-go, and set out to say it. But when it comes to the experience, illusion’s the thing, and it’s remarkable to watch the film’s essence emerge slowly but starkly from the story.
The focus here is on the title character’s ordeal of writing In Cold Blood, his legendary “non-fiction novel” about the murder of a Kansas family and the trial, conviction and execution of the killers. As he makes his way to Kansas, on assignment from the New Yorker, he can smell blood in more ways than one — this, he senses, may be his opportunity to take his work (and his popular and critical acclaim) to a whole other level. All he needs is access, and with his New York connections, and the industrious Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) by his side, he shouldn’t have too much trouble.
One of the first things we notice about Capote (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a performance that is equal parts stunt and fierce dedication) is the way he frames every discussion in terms of himself. This manifests itself in obvious ways — all conversational roads lead to his book — but it’s striking outside of that context, too: listen to what he says to reassure the shy, scared, insecure friend of one of the victims, and consider how arrogant, sad, and kind of prophetic his statement is.
This all seems like painfully obvious foreshadowing in hindsight, but as you watch it unfold, it’s not nearly so transparent. We see Capote build a relationship with the intelligent, charismatic, strange killer (Clifton Collins, Jr.), and we wonder what’s going on — is one of them playing games with the other? Does Capote have real sympathy for the prisoner and want to help him? It may be hard to believe, but it’s hard to say: for a while, I thought a plot twist would involve Capote being betrayed and played for a fool.
But no: it’s Capote who’s playing the games, trying to control the course of his non-fiction novel in the same way he manipulated the imagined events of his previous works. After a while, he badly wants to simply finish, to wrap up the book and get himself out, but he can’t, because gosh darn it, some of the prisoners’ appeals have succeeded, and the execution delayed. Awful, but again: on some scale, this sort of reasoning seems uncomfortable familiar.
The movie does not compromise, and doesn’t spring any deus ex machina redemption on our protagonist. Before the credits roll, guilt will wholly consume him. We see the world start passing him by — his friend Harper hits it big with some little novel no one’s heard of; his lover leaves for vacation without him — but there can be no escape for Truman. It quickly becomes obvious that In Cold Blood will become a runaway hit, but what price will the author have paid?
This isn’t a perfect film — the passage of time is somewhat awkward and jerky, skipping months in the blink of an eye, and the pacing of the first two acts is noticeably off. But Miller rallies in a big way in the last half hour, giving us a conclusion that’s strong, intricate, perfectly logical, and heartbreaking. Amazingly, when all is said and done, we are not eager to condemn Capote. He’s arrogant, yes, self-serving, sure, but a genuinely bad man would not have been driven to the brink of suicide with remorse.