The first time I ever saw the 2005’s Capote, I thought it was a great film.
I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise. I love movies about writers and I love biopics and, as the title indicates, Capote was both. I’m also fascinated by true crime and Capote told the story of how Truman Capote came to write the first true crime book, In Cold Blood. Add to that, I was (and am) a Philip Seymour Hoffman fan and Capote provided Hoffman with not only a rare starring role but it also won him an overdue Academy Award. Finally, to top it all off, Capote also dealt with Truman’s friendship with Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), the author of To Kill A Mockingbird. Seriously, a film that dealt with the writing of both In Cold Blood and To Kill A Mockingbird!? How couldn’t I love that? While everyone else was outraged that Crash beat Brokeback Mountain, I was upset that it beat Capote.
Needless to say, I was really looking forward to rewatching Capote for this review. But when I actually did sit down and watched it, I was shocked to discover that Capote wasn’t actually the masterpiece that I remembered it being.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s still a good film. At times, it’s even a great film. I still think it would have been a more worthy Best Picture winner than Crash. But still, there seemed to be something missing. Much as with director Bennett Miller’s most recent film, Foxcatcher, there’s a coldness at the heart of Capote. One can’t deny its success on a technical level but, at the same time, it keeps the audience at a distance. In the end, we remains detached observers, admiring the skill of the film without ever getting emotionally invested in it.
Interestingly, the film suggests that the exact opposite happened to Truman Capote while he wrote In Cold Blood. The film suggests that Capote got so invested in one of the killers at the center of In Cold Blood that the process of writing the book nearly destroyed him. When we first see Capote, he’s at some social event in New York and he’s amusing his rich friends with charmingly risqué anecdotes about his other rich and famous friends. As played by Hoffman, Capote is someone who is almost always performing. It only with his friend Harper Lee and his partner Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) that he ever lets down his guard long enough to reveal who he actually is, a gay man from the deep South who was fortunate enough to escape.
That’s one reason why Capote grows close to Perry Smith (Clifton Collin, Jr.). The subjects of In Cold Blood, Smith and Dick Hickcock (Mark Pellegrino) killed the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Capote, who followed the case from their arrest to their eventual execution, becomes obsessed with Smith precisely because he sees Smith, with his dysfunctional background and his overly sensitive nature, as being who Capote could have been if things had gone just a little bit differently in his life. Miller further makes this point by skillfully juxtaposing scenes of Truman dropping names and telling jokes at New York parties with the grim reality of life and death in Kansas.
Truman finds himself serving as a mentor to Perry. (Hickcock is neglected by both Capote and the film.) Of course, Truman’s also a writer and he knows that he needs an ending for his story. As his editor (played by Bob Balaban, who seems to be destined to play everyone’s editor at some point or another) points out, Smith and Hickcock have to be executed if the book is ever to be completed. Truman also has to get Perry to finally talk about what happened in the Clutter family farm. As much as Capote seems to care about Perry, he’s ruthless when it comes to getting material for his book. The film suggests that Truman Capote got his greatest success at the cost of his soul.
It’s a rather dark movie, which might explain why I was initially so impressed with it. (I went through a period of time where I thought any movie with a sad ending was a masterpiece.) Rewatching it, I saw that the film’s triumph was mostly one of casting. Miller gets some seriously brilliant performances from the cast of Capote. Yes, Hoffman is great in Capote but so is the entire cast. Keener and Greenwood are well-cast as the only two people who have the guts to call Truman on his bullshit. Chris Cooper gives a very Chris Cooperish performance as Alvin Dewey, the no-nonsense lawman who views Capote with a mix of amusement and distrust. Clifton Collins, Jr. and Mark Pellegrino are both excellent as Smith and Hickcock. In fact, Pellegrino makes such an impression that you regret the both Capote and the film didn’t spend more time with his character.
As previously stated, Hoffman won Best Actor but Capote lost best picture to Crash. How Crash beat not just Brokeback Mountain but Capote as well is a mystery that Oscar historians are still trying to unravel.