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In 1959 two men shot and killed an entire family in a small Kansas town.
The murders would change the life of a gay, upper-crest New York City writer forever.
That writer was Truman Capote, the subject of a new film directed by Bennett Miller, based on the biography by Gerald Clarke and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Every great literary work has a backstory, and the backstory of Capote’s true-crime masterpiece “In Cold Blood” is particularly interesting. “Capote” spans the five years it took to write the book, from the moment the author reads a newspaper story about the shotgun executions of the Clutter family, to the execution of the murderers themselves.
If you’ve read “In Cold Blood” you know how the case wraps up. Despite the grisly subject matter at its heart, “Capote” is not an action-packed, edge of your seat thriller. It is a slow-burning psychological study in which what was done to the dead is only part of the backdrop for what the living do to each other. It is a story of relationships, about how people use others to get what they want.
The centrifugal force around which every character in the film revolves is Capote, a man unlike anyone else.
The first thing people recall about the author is his voice. Fey, whiny, nasal with a whiff of pretension, Capote sounded, as a friend of mine once put it, “like the world’s most annoying fag.”
And in many ways he was. However, his act went over exceptionally well in the New York City socialite crowd. The film depicts other wealthy intellectuals gathered around Capote at parties to laugh at his cutting, snide commentary. He was weird, yes, but he was their kind of weird.
But would it play in Kansas?
Amazingly it did, though, as the film depicts, the startled folks, still reeling from the violent deaths of one of their town’s most prominent families, didn’t know what to make of him at first. But Capote uses his charm, and his fame, to wow and woo them all, snagging in-depth and exclusive interviews with those closest to the crime, not to mention nearly unfettered access to the investigation and the criminals themselves.
And that’s where things start to get tricky. Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), one of the murderers, quickly becomes a web of promises, hopes and betrayal.
The deeper Capote gets into writing his book the deeper he must go into his relationship with Perry, and the harder it gets to climb out.
Both Perry and Capote have something the other wants – Perry wants Capote to help set him free and Capote wants Perry’s firsthand account of what happened in that Kansas farmhouse that night. Neither man has all the time in the world – one is on death row and the other has a book to finish.
“If I leave here without understanding you the world will see you as a monster always,” Capote tells Perry. “I don’t want that.”
It is clear that Capote cares for Perry. In fact, he sees a distorted reflection of himself in the young man.
“Perry and I grew up in the same house and one day he stood up and went out the back door while I went out the front,” Capote muses.
However, the romanticizing only goes so far, and as Perry’s life drags on via appeals and stays of execution, so does Capote’s book. A book he badly wants to be finished with.
His too-close-for-comfort relationship with Perry is not lost on Capote’s lover, Jack (Bruce Greenwood).
“Jack thinks I’m using Perry but he also thinks I fell in love with him when I was in Kansas,” Capote says to his friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener). “Now how both of those things can be true is beyond me.”
And yet, it isn’t. In fact, these competing impulses punish Capote brutally, and it is this tension that drives the film.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is the other driving force. Hoffman is Capote. From the voice to the mannerisms, Hoffman steps into the role with eerie perfection.
However, without the rest of the cast Hoffman wouldn’t be able to get nearly as much mileage out of his Capote. Catherine Keener plays Harper Lee (yes, of “To Kill A Mockingbird Fame”) with a subtlety that provides Capote’s perfect foil. Her performance is understated yet strong. Chris Cooper’s stoic agent Alvin Dewey, a tried and true small-town Kansas lawman, provides a pointed opposite to Capote’s big city ego.
And what an ego it is.
“Sometimes when I think how good my book will be I can hardly breathe,” Capote says.
During a phone conversation between New York and Kansas, Jack tells Capote, “Be careful what you do to get what you want.”
But Capote is not careful. If it’s an ending he wants, he gets it, as Perry’s body swings lifeless from the gallows. But at what cost?
“It was a terrible experience,” he says, “and I will never get over it.”