October, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Bennett Miller

Starring:Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, and Mark Pellegrino

Who would have thought that this movie, helmed by a fledgling director from a script from an actor-turned-first-time-screenwriter about a long dead author's 4-year effort to write a non-fiction book could be so accomplished? Here's a movie that literally struggled to get made--and will now have the happy problem of being recognized as one of the more significant critical and financial success of the year. It couldn't have happened to a more deserving film.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, (who has sandwiched an astounding 26 film roles around his busy stage career during the past decade alone) delivers a mesmerizing performance in this examination of the circumstances surrounding the creation of Capote's stunning book, "In Cold Blood", that encyclopedic examination of the 1959 murder of an entire family in a small west Kansas town. With the assistance of an excellent supporting cast including Catherine Keener, Bob Balaban, Bruce Greenwood and Chris Cooper, Hoffman brings the events surrounding the arrest, conviction and execution of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock to life with the same freshness and vitality as Capote himself did in his book, but this time from the perspective of the author's deeply self-absorbed point of view. In the process, director Bennett Miller, (whose previous output consists of single, 8 year-old documentary about a tour guide for Grey Lines Tours in New York) and novice screenwriter Dan Futterman, (working from a book by Gerald Clarke) have fashioned a compelling drama, delivered with the skill and competence usually associated with the medium's masters.

Capote's camerawork is uncomplicated without being simplistic; stills of the barren fields, naked trees and modest farm houses of the post-harvest American Mid-West have the sharp immediacy of photo-realistic paintings, while cocktail party scenes set in Manhattan convey the boozy claustrophobia immediately recognizable to anyone who has ever attended one. The camera catches the vastness of a Kansas prison in winter as perfectly as it does the cozy Brooklyn lair Capote shared with Jack Dunphy, (Bruce Greenwood) his companion of many years whose needs were swept aside in Capote's obsessive drive to complete his magnum opus.

Backed by funding from The New Yorker and the research assistance of author Harper Lee, (Keener)  Capote decamped to western Kansas for months on end, using his celebrity status and sharp powers of observation to insinuate himself into the lives of those involved in the case, including an unprecedented level of access to the murderers themselves. Armed with this vast trove of information, the filmmakers suggest that Capote manipulated everyone involved in order to get his story, reserving his most egregious duping for Perry Smith. Whether Gerald Clarke's book is completely accurate in this regard is surely open to conjecture, but there is little disagreement that the author found in Smith an oddly inverted reflection of Capote's own life which added extraordinary impact to the book. But Capote hid these feelings, giving the convicted killers the impression he was far more committed to them during their appeal process than he was to their story. Moreover, Capote didn't limit his self-absorption to these convicts; as Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published and turned into a highly successful movie, Capote initially ignored and then openly resented her success. Dunphy tried to support Capote in his labors but finally became exhausted by the latter's obliviousness to anyone's needs other than his own. Booze and the adoration of sycophants replace the bracing candor of friends and lover--as the final credits roll, the audience is reminded that, after the appearance of his book, Capote lived another 20 years without ever publishing anything.

As Capote, Hoffman is mesmerizing; from intonation to hand gestures, body language to facial expressions, it's simply impossible to imagine how his interpretation of Capote could be improved upon. Miller's direction enhances his lead's skills: as Hoffman enters the foyer of a funeral home, he's seen in quiet profile that speaks volumes about the author's mincing style without using a single word. However fey Capote might have been, Hoffman also captures the author's fearlessness; he's as capable of sharing the pain in his own life as he is uncovering it in others and his guile in tense situations suggests an inner toughness sharply at odds with the softness of his physical exterior and mannerisms. As Capote says goodbye to the killers moments before they are to be executed, Miller allows the camera to linger on Hoffman's tear-stained face, his grieving expression a mixture of embarrassment and self-loathing, giving lie to his protestations that he'd done all he could for the pair. 

If there's a flaw anywhere, it revolves around the character of Perry Smith; as played by Clifton Collins Jr., Smith emerges quite differently than he did in the book, (or as Robert Blake portrayed him in the highly regarded 1967 film directed by Richard Brooks.) A lifetime of abuse and neglect emerges from the pages of Capote's book, providing some exculpatory rationale for Smith's atavistic behavior; but the Smith that Collins provides is oddly unfocused and less accountable than Capote held him out to be. Whatever the accuracy of this portrayal, the film correctly notes that Capote’s book ushered in a new type of writing, subsequently used to great effect by authors like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. Capote is now credited with inventing the "non-fiction novel" and no one has bested him at it since his triumph was published to such astounding acclaim in 1963. This film does that accomplishment proud, even as it mercilessly excoriates Capote for the means he employed in producing it.

The verdict? One of the best movies of the year.


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