Volume 75, Number 19 | Sep. 28 - Oct. 04, 2005


Opens Sept. 30
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Philip Seymour Hoffman channels the ghost of Truman Capote in the first of two biopics about the literary legend.

The beginning of Capote’s end

By Sari Globerman

When it comes to telling the story of an artist’s life, most biopics focus on the tragic descent from genius to madness, the spectacular flameout or slow undoing. Certainly, Bennett Miller’s very fine “Capote,” the first of two Truman Capote movies to be released this year, is no different. But whereas most movies follow a winding road to their subject’s decline, “Capote,” like next year’s “Have You Heard?,” hangs the author’s disintegration on a single event: the writing of his true-crime masterpiece, “In Cold Blood,” which chronicled the gruesome killings of a Kansas farming family by two young drifters.

Like Capote’s book, the movie opens with a series of starkly beautiful shots—barren Kansas corn fields in early winter, a single house isolated against a cold, cloudless sky—that culminate with the shocking discovery of Nancy Clutter lying brutally murdered in her blood-stained bed. Shortly thereafter, we meet Truman. Not so much portrayed as incarnated by the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman, he is dazzling a crowd of admirers at a swank Manhattan party as Esquivel-style cocktail music tinkles in the background. No doubt about it, we are not in Kansas anymore.

When Truman reads about the murders in the New York Times the next day, he calls William Shawn (Bob Balaban), the editor of the New Yorker, and requests an assignment to write about how the killings are affecting the small, rural town. By that evening, accompanied by childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he is on a train bound for Holcomb, Kansas, like some rare tropical bird flying fast into the cold Midwest. The speed with which these early scenes pile on top of one another lends his journey a sense of ill-fated inevitability. To go to Kansas, to get the story: that is his destiny and in it, his downfall.

But get it he does, easily earning the trust of Laura Kinney, Nancy Clutter’s best friend, and Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), an agent for the Kansas Bureau of Investigations, by revealing an intimate moment from his own life that connects to theirs. Hoffman imbues tremendous complexity to these moments, making it difficult to determine whether Truman’s revelations are born of a desire to connect and empathize with others, or merely the expert manipulations of a writer willing to prey on the vulnerabilities of his subjects and sources for his own agenda.

This question of motive only becomes more complicated once Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the murderers, are caught and brought to stand trial in Kansas. From the moment he spies Perry Smith through the bars of his holding cell, Truman feels a profound sense of kinship with and attraction to the small, dark stranger. “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house,” Truman tells Nelle, “and one day, he went out the back door and I went out the front.” But it is not simply sympathy at work when Truman feeds baby food to a starving Perry, wasting away from a hunger strike; it is greed. He wants to get the story, and once he gets it, his darkest heart wants the prisoners to die so that he can get his ending.

As an exploration of the moral complexities of writing, the relationship between subject and author, and above all, how the book that made him simultaneously unmade him, “Capote” is fascinating. And the film succeeds as a character study of the highest order. Those interested in the writer will revel over Hoffman’s spot-on portrayal—the high-pitched childlike drawl, the fey gestures. Keener, as Nelle, is astonishing, too. With her calm, no-bullshit demeanor, she functions as the movie’s moral center from her very first appearance on screen when she calls Truman out for having paid off the train porter to praise him. And, as the movie progresses, she acts as a foil to illuminate Truman’s increasing selfishness and incontrovertible moral rot.

But movies about writers are full of pitfalls; after all, the writing process—solitary, internal, sedentary—is neither visually nor aurally interesting, and “Capote” doesn’t go beyond what it is: a narrow writer biopic focused on a six-year slice of time. Those familiar with Capote’s life story—his meteoric rise to fame, his shallow interest in socialites and New York society, his fury over having been snubbed by the Pulitzer and National Book Award committees for “In Cold Blood,” his descent into alcoholism, and early death—will be able to put the movie in the larger context it belongs, but one cannot help but feel that an opportunity was squandered here. Like Truman’s own unfulfilled promise, “Capote” could have offered something much bigger—an epic American story of fortune and failure with as much to tell us about our own time as Truman’s.

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