Nov 2, 2005 at 12:00 am

Writer Harlan Ellison, when discussing the moral responsibility of artists during a lecture, said, “As a human being, Dostoyevsky was a monster, but you can’t tell me The Idiot didn’t earn him a place in heaven.”

What to make of author and raconteur Truman Capote? After watching Philip Seymour Hoffman’s superlative performance in Capote one has to wonder whether the celebrated writer’s true-crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, referred to the murders it chronicled or the methods Capote used to get his story.

Director Bennett Miller’s smart and absorbing film offers a discerning character study of the author as a ruthlessly manipulative but insightful writer. Vain, dishonest, and, at times, surprisingly sincere, Capote is a fascinating figure — but far from likable.

Capote’s account of the 1959 murder of the Clutters, a family of four murdered on their isolated Kansas farm, was arguably his greatest achievement, and established the true-crime novel as a new literary genre.

Accompanied by his childhood friend and research assistant, Nelle Harper Lee (who later dropped her first name and won a Pulitzer for To Kill a Mockingbird), the effete author travels to rural Kansas on assignment for The New Yorker. His investigation quickly grows to unexpected proportions and Capote becomes convinced nothing less than a full-length book will do. Charming, bribing and lying to the locals, he worms his way into their lives and gains unlimited access to the killers — Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) — even after they’ve been found guilty.

Over time, Capote forms a not-altogether-asexual kinship with Perry, which blossoms into a strange case of co-dependency. Dangling promises of legal help, some of which he reneges on, Capote spends four years manipulating and emotionally bonding with the killer. At one point, he 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.”

Despite their close relationship, Perry is reluctant to give up details about what happened the night of the killings. Years of playing cat and mouse with the truth take their toll, and Truman’s frustrations reveal his singular motive and intent: to finish his book. With the killers’ appeals running out and the day of reckoning at hand, Capote worries that he’ll never uncover the full story.

Films about famous writers tend to be dull affairs, concerned more with personal melodrama than artistic inspiration. Capote stands out with its depiction of the writer’s manners and method. We see Capote as he cajoles, charms and seduces his subjects into trusting him, knowing full well he’ll eventually betray them in print. Capote’s most heartfelt gestures are revealed to be self-serving, a means to an end. While witnessing Perry’s hanging, his dispassionate gaze shows the depths of his insincerity. Afterwards, he laments, “There was nothing I could do to save them.” Lee responds: “The fact is you didn’t want to.”

Not enough can be said about Hoffman’s nuanced portrait of this complicated and conflicted narcissist. The actor disappears completely into his role, capturing Capote’s mendacity but still honoring the writer’s intelligence and purposefulness. It’s a performance that will, undoubtedly, be heralded at Oscar time. Chris Cooper delivers yet another dignified and understated performance as the local lawman, and Catherine Keener turns in a subdued portrait of Lee.

Though Capote owes far too much to Dead Man Walking, screenwriter Dan Futterman’s first effort is smart and restrained. Unfortunately, he fails to find a heart in the story, and the audience has no one to connect with. The film is intellectually satisfying but as emotionally barren as its wintry Kansas landscape.

The crux of Capote’s novel was the eventual toll it took on the author’s psyche. In Cold Blood was the last full-length book Truman ever wrote, as he succumbed to despair and alcoholism. In his relentless pursuit to embrace the art of writing, the author clearly sacrificed some of his own humanity. It’s a testament to Hoffman’s talent that we can look past Capote’s shameless crocodile tears and coldness of heart to find unexpected poignancy. The ultimate irony is that this brilliant man, who could look into his subjects with such depth and insight, understood so little of himself. —


Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].