Review by Beth Gilligan
Posted on 13 October 2005
Source Sony Pictures Classics 35mm print
Features: The 43rd New York Film Festival
For the past three decades, Truman Capote the celebrity has overshadowed Truman Capote the writer. Bennett Miller’s new biopic Capote may not do much to redress this balance, but it nevertheless offers insight into the dueling sides of his personality. As incarnated by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote’s character shifts from compassion to self-absorption in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, the film does not share this tonal inconsistency, unfolding in a steady, straightforward manner.
Unlike most biopics, which attempt to jam their protagonists’ unwieldy lives into something resembling a coherent narrative, screenwriter Dan Futterman instead concentrates on a specific period in Capote’s life. The movie begins in 1959, when the author, still basking in acclaim from the recent publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, spots an article on the back page of The New York Times detailing the gruesome murder of a Kansas farm family. Intrigued, he convinces William Shawn, his editor at The New Yorker, to allow him to travel to the rural town to investigate the crime. Accompanied by his childhood friend Harper Lee (who would later go on to publish To Kill a Mockingbird), Capote is initially met with skepticism from the locals, who don’t know quite what to make of his flamboyant taste in clothes and high-pitched voice, but his fame eventually opens doors, and he is able to gain the trust of Alvin Dewey, the lead investigator on the case.
When two drifters, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, are charged with the crime, Capote rushes to their jail cell to squeeze as much information as he can out of them. Sensing their reticence, he manages to convince them he’s on their side, gently offering to help them find better legal advice. The relationship between Capote and Smith quickly deepens in its intensity, as they discover each other’s troubled family history. As time goes on, however, Capote becomes increasingly engulfed in narcissism, coldly distancing himself from the killers while continuing to exploit their saga in his writing, which has now taken the form of a book. Although his behavior advances him professionally, he is unprepared for the personal toll it will take.
In keeping with these events, an emphasis on duality is carried throughout the film, starting with the opening shots, which contrast the wide expanses of Kansas farmland with the glittering New York literary scene. Miller and Futterman allow for Capote’s sensitive side to shine through, but do not hesitate to highlight the less flattering aspects of his personality. While the plot is relayed in a compelling manner, the movie, despite eschewing many biopic conventions, bumps up against a common pitfall of the genre: in the end, it doesn’t feel like it adds up to much. Still, Hoffman’s animated performance and the sharply-written script bolster it above many similar offerings.