The Theory of Chaos

Sunday, September 23, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Capote

Originally published 10/25/05
Full review behind the jump


: Bennett Miller
: Dan Futterman, based on the book by Gerald Clarke
: Caroline Baron, Michael Ohoven, William Vince
: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins, Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban, Amy Ryan, Mark Pellegrino

Jack thinks I’m using Perry. He also thinks I fell in love with him in Kansas. How both those things could be true is beyond me.” Of course it is beyond Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to reconcile these motives, both of which happen to be true. The essence of tragedy is that we are blind to the flaws with which we author our own downfall.

How fitting, then, that a man known in all the best crowds for his ability to depict a foible in a pithy toss-off should spell out his own doom with such ease and flair and not even realize it. For the tragedy of
Capote, a drama about Capote’s most famous book, is that he, indeed, fell in love with Perry and used him. Without those two contradictory desires, the “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, which so galvanized the world of literature and shocked Amercia, would never have existed.

Capote was recognized in his life as a titanic man of letters, though he knew it before anyone else did. When the movie opens, most people don’t yet, and he is simply the most entertaining author in New York’s society circle, creating laughs at the best soirees and dropping the right names in the process. His childhood friend and fellow author Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who will during this drama write a book of some note herself – catches him in the act of bribing a railroad porter to gush about his book in front of her. It’s a peculiar blend of talent with a childlike ego – “I have 94 percent recall of all conversations. I measured myself”, he emphasizes. He was a man who knew great work when he saw it, and he knew instinctively that writing about the murder of the Clutter family would be great work.

One night in November of 1959, in Holcomb, Kansas, two drifters and petty thieves named Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) invaded the Clutters’ farmhouse and killed them all, execution-style. Capote sees a newspaper article about it, just the thinnest of sidebars, but it touches something in him. He clips it out (the scissors in loud close-up, the book will be a violent act of its own,) and phones his editor at The New Yorker (Bob Balaban), announcing his intention to write an article about it.

Within a day he’s in Holcomb with Nelle – whose mixture of patience and stern, protective paternalism tells us much – and he canvasses the town, recording reactions, probing secrets. He’s at the Christmas table of Sheriff Allen Dewey (Chris Cooper) when a call comes in that the killers have been captured. The Sheriff is made uncomfortable by Capote’s mix of flamboyance and perceptiveness, but Capote has charmed his wife (Amy Ryan) with stories about Humphrey Bogart so he’s become a fixture in the household. And he’s also outside the station when Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are brought in to be jailed pending trial. The moment he locks eyes with Perry Smith, he decides a simple article will never do.

He spends months with the killers, trying to capture them in verbal portrait, trying to pierce not only what they did that night, but why. Maybe that way the world won’t see them as freaks and outcasts but people who steered the wrong way and never turned back. Perry is a peculiar man, the orphaned son of an alcoholic Cherokee woman, yet he takes great care with his speech, uses big words in unusual places then stops to explain them. For Capote, Perry activates some memory of his own sad childhood circumstances. He hires lawyers, calls for appeals and stays of execution. He hopes to keep Perry (and Hickock, if he’s part of the package) alive because without their story, the book is incomplete. And Capote has a sense that this will be an amazing book which will bring him fame and fortune, and why not have that as well if you deserve it?

How this relationship turns and what it costs Capote in the end I’ll leave you to discover. The fates of Perry and Hickock are known and unsurprising, the movie is not so much about the justice meted out to them but how the creation of Capote’s most famous work became a means to exorcise and destroy his hated past, but ended up destroying him in the present. For the last nineteen years of his life following this greatest career triumph he drank, and appeared on talk shows, and started books without finishing them.

The script by actor Dan Futterman and the direction by former commercial helmer Bennett Miller are the essence of great biopic filmmaking – they tell a great story and find a way to telescope the character of this man’s life into these choices he made. Their longtime friend Hoffman is astounding in the role. Astounding is perhaps the wrong word, because what’s most impressive is how quickly you disregard the mimicry. “Capote” was a persona, a carefully-crafted mask. Hoffman offers his technically-perfect replica then also sneaks in so delicately those moments of loneliness and anguish behind that mask. Despite that the movie is about him, his best work is often all-but-invisible.

The supporting cast is equally appropriate to their parts. Keener creates a whole life for Lee without ever overshadowing Hoffman – just compare her sexy single mother in The 40-Year-Old Virgin to this work and ask how many actresses could play both roles in the same year. Then add in her unadorned and unheralded but nevertheless flawless performance as Sean Penn’s partner in The Interpreter, this is an actress of such touch and grace that you never catch her showing you what good acting she’s doing. Collins is excellent, too, as Perry – enigmatic, afraid of himself, yearning to be seen as a man of intellect even as the hangman prepares his noose.

There’s even room in the story for Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), Truman’s “longtime companion” in a time when such slang was deemed necessary. They act as any couple of some years would where one has a habit of losing himself in work like Capote, and their relationship is tenderly, comfortably one of the most honest you’ll see depicted in any movie. Their love expresses itself not in any clichéd way but in the tiniest of signals and interactions.

The contrast between the towers of Manhattan and the stark horizons of Kansas (actually the equally flat Manitoba) is used to full effect, and makes without forcing the point about In Cold Blood’s impact – it revealed the unfathomable brutality that could explode anywhere, even in this most red-white-and-blue heartland. That title was a winner – but though he bragged about it elsewhere, Capote couldn’t bear to admit to Perry that he came up with it himself. That’s the heart of Capote, one of the year’s best films.


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