Philip Seymour Hoffman has long been an extraordinary presence on screen. He’s done impressive work in Happiness, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Almost Famous and every Paul Thomas Anderson film, and now he outdoes himself in “Capote”, for which he’s deservedly been receiving accolades from practically every critics association.
Hoffman offers an uncanny portrayal of Truman Capote, a fascinating figure of the 20th century who, behind a somewhat goofy public persona, possessed one of the most brilliant minds in America and a sometimes surprisingly sombre soul. “Capote” follows the writer from 1959 to 1965, from the night of the incomprehensible quadruple homicide that shook Kansas to the execution of the two men responsible. Capote didn’t witness the murders, of course, but he became interested in writing about it the very next day when he read about it in the front section of the New York Times and he kept at it all those years, right until he assisted to the hanging of Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr., heartbreaking) and Richard Hicock (Mark Pellegrino).
The ensuing book, In Cold Blood, was a sensational success and is credited with creating the “Non-Fiction Novel” genre, influencing generations of authors. It made Capote even more famous and admired than he already was, but it may have cost him his soul. As you can see, “Capote” is hardly a typical biopic. Though we do get to know a lot about the man in what was probably the most crucial period of his life, the film is as much about the people and events depicted through In Cold Blood as it is about the one who reported them.
With Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, in a nicely underplayed turn) -who had time to write, publish and have To Kill a Mockingbird turned into a film in the time it took Capote to complete his book- tagging along as his research assistant and bodyguard (!), Capote took in the small town of Holcomb and developed a relationship with Alvin Dewey Jr. (Chris Cooper, sharp), the lead detective of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation in charge of the case. Most interesting, and disturbing, was the bond Capote developed with Perry Smith, to whom he grew ambiguously close over the years he spent on Death Row. The two shared many intimate conversations, Perry talking about his unhappy childhood and Truman talking about his, working their way to Smith trusting Capote enough to tell him about the night of the murders. Quid pro quo, as Hannibal Lecter would say.
So there’s kind of a Silence of the Lambs thing going on, but it’s also sort of an Interview with a Vampire – except that the vampire might not be the one we think. A convicted killer Capote was not, but one might have accused him of being manipulative. As Dewey asks when hearing that the book will be titled In Cold Blood, “That refers to the crime or the fact that you’re still talking to the criminals?” Furthermore, is Capote truly a friend to Smith, or is he pretending to be because “he’s a goldmine”?
So far, I’ve been making “Capote” sound desperately tragic, and it is, but it can also be blackly humorous. In that regard, it’s akin to Fargo, which also drew both laughs and chills out of the juxtaposition of a deceivingly dorky character with a hidden edge (Frances McDormand’s pregnant policewoman) and of grisly killings in the Midwest. “Capote” doesn’t quite have the majesty and comic brilliance of the Coen’s masterpiece, but it similarly depicts the collision between a quiet, conservative world and its criminally violent underbelly, and the central character is even more unlikely.
In Cold Blood is a ruthless, almost clinical read, but what isn’t necessarily apparent on the page is that its author was “nonchalantly and resplendently gay”, an effete intellectual with a high-pitched voice who immediately drew attention even in New York – imagine in Kansas! Hence, “Capote” is often perversely entertaining, even if its core is dark, dark, dark. That balancing act between being the life of the party and sinking into overwhelming guilt is what makes Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance -and the film- simply unforgettable.