Capote (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Capote tells two stories, presenting both without hiccups. The first is an exposé of how the title author's In Cold Blood was written. The second shows the emotional and psychic dissolution of the man who starts out the film as a brilliant eccentric and finishes it as a basket case.

In Cold Blood made Truman Capote a household name, and led to him being ranked as one of the greatest American writers. It also destroyed him. He would never complete another book and, less than 20 years after finishing In Cold Blood, he would die of a drug overdose. Great authors often live unhappy lives. After his experiences putting together his legacy work, Capote's became almost unbearable. Bennett Miller's motion picture shows how obsession and self-absorption developed from personality traits into personal demons.

Capote opens in 1959. The title character (Philip Seymour Hoffman), tired of writing fiction, has decided to investigate four Kanas murders as a possible subject for a non-fiction article in the New Yorker magazine. With him, he takes his good friend, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who has recently completed her manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird. The local police chief (Chris Cooper) offers reluctant cooperation. After the killers - Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) - are captured, Capote's interviews with Perry result in a twisted form of bonding and co-dependency. There is manipulation and empathy on both sides. At one point, Truman remarks, "It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. One day, I went out the front door and he went out the back." Eventually, with the appeals process prolonging the execution of the death penalty, Truman reaches the point where he wants Perry to be hanged so this nightmarish phase of his life can reach closure. "All I want to do is write the ending, and there's no end in sight," he laments.

One cannot write about this film without tossing superlatives in the direction of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose performance will earn him an Oscar nomination. Hoffman doesn't merely imitate Capote. He inhabits him with an intensity that demands acknowledgement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper, and Clifton Collins Jr. offer support, but this is Hoffman's movie from start to finish. Underrated for most of his career, this role will allow him to take his turn in the spotlight.

Capote is a deep movie with rich veins to mine. The lead character is not likeable. He is a user who exploits his relationship with Perry for personal gain. At the beginning, he doesn't know what it will ultimately cost him. As the movie develops, we see the complex love-and-hate association with Perry and how this results in the slow erosion of Capote's personality. The brilliance of Bennett's movie is that it concentrates on the characters and their interaction and never becomes a mouthpiece for one side or the other with respect to the death penalty. It would have been easy to turn Capote into a polemic, but Bennett resists the urge.

Although I had a stronger connection with Capote on an intellectual level than on an emotional level (I never came close to shedding a tear), the experience stayed with me for some time. That's unusual for something I see for the first time in the midst of a film festival. (In this case, Toronto.) Normally, movies falling into a mid-day slot leave a minimal aftertaste before being washed away by the next feature, but not this one. Capote is strong medicine that will demand recognition at next year's Oscars.

Capote (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2005-09-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1