Monday, February 27, 2006

Review - Capote

In a small Kansas town in November 1959, four members of the Clutter family were brutally murdered by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. Six years later, Truman Capote published In Cold Blood, his acclaimed non-fiction account of the incident which made him the most famous writer in America. It is those six years which form the basis for Capote, a fascinating new film which revolves around Philip Seymour Hoffman’s remarkable embodiment of the writer. The film explores Capote’s complex relationship with Perry Smith and examines the human cost of producing a literary masterpiece, which would prove to be the last book he would ever complete.

Like all the best biopics, Capote gives us a portrait of a man by focusing on a specific period in his life. The early scenes of Truman and his close friend Nelle Harper Lee (a note-perfect Catherine Keener) embarking on their trip to Kansas are lightly comical at first. In the dry, conservative atmosphere of Holcomb, this flamboyant dandy could have beamed down from another planet. The deadpan look local detective Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) gives him when he first appears in his office is a treat. But as Truman and Nelle begin their investigations in a town rocked by the deaths, Dan Futterman’s brilliantly economical screenplay grows deeper and more complex with every scene.

We see how Truman effortlessly ingratiates his way into the affections and trust of anyone who could provide him with information. He flatters and charms them; in one case he audaciously offers a local prison warden a bribe, with the disclaimer that he doesn’t want to burden the town with the cost of his visits, and that the money is “to be dispensed as he sees fit”. Futterman and director Bennett Miller build everything around Capote and allow other characters to act as the conscience and voice of reason in the film. Lee was Truman’s childhood friend and she sees him for who he really is. Her ability to cut through all of Truman’s nonsense with one direct comment is exhibited on a number of occasions in the film; notably an early scene when Truman receives a compliment from a porter and she says bluntly “you paid him to say that”. When Alvin Dewey is told that the title of Capote’s book is In Cold Blood, he asks whether it refers to the murders themselves, or the fact that he is still pursuing the story for his own gains.

Capote really kicks off when Truman makes contact with Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). He doesn’t seem too concerned with the fate of the other killer, Richard Hickock; in fact he barely acknowledges him when passing their adjoining cells. But he is inexplicably drawn to Smith, and begins to develop a deep bond - perhaps a love? - with him. Capote is fascinated by the articulate, sensitive and artistic Smith; he slowly draws out his story of abused childhood and wayward life, and their connection grows even stronger - “It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house” he remarks “and one day he got up and went out the back door and I went out the front”.

But Capote needs the story of that bloody night before he can finish his book, and he helps to find an appeal lawyer for Smith and Hickock in order to gain more time with them. Smith thinks he has found a friend, a saviour. Capote thinks he’s on the way to writing a book which will change writing forever.

The film is directed by Bennett Miller in unfussy, tidy style; but it shows a sense of insight and depth which is remarkable for a first feature. His camera makes great use of the wintry and haunting Kansas landscape, and he underplays every emotion as Capote’s mask slowly slips in the film’s increasingly powerful second half. Credit is also due to Mychael Danna’s pensive and understated score for adding to the film’s potent atmosphere. Miller is unhurried and subtle as he builds to a full account of the murders - in which the briefest flashes of violence chill to the bone.

Capote is well served by its cast, with not a dud performance in sight. Keener is as good as ever as Harper Lee, expressing her care for her good friend while also signalling her growing distaste for his actions. Keener’s sardonic delivery is perfectly suited to the role of a woman who never fails to tell Capote the truth of the matter, whether he wants to hear it or not. One man who has missed out in the Oscar rush is Clifton Collins Jr. whose magnetic display as Smith makes his frequent conversations with Capote gripping and moving. “I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat” Smith says, and Collins captures the agony of this na├»ve and heartfelt young man who is paying the ultimate price for his moment of madness. There is solid support from Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood and Bob Balaban - but let’s be honest, Capote is really all about one man.

This is, after all, the Truman show, and it takes an actor of some skill to take on a role such as this. The part of Truman Capote must seem both an irresistible and terrifying prospect for an actor. All those mannerisms, that voice, the opportunity to play such a flamboyant, complex role; but on the other hand, what could possibly be worse than a bad Truman Capote impersonation? It’s a real challenge for any actor and Philip Seymour Hoffman surpasses all expectations in the role. He perfectly replicates Capote’s uniquely quivering falsetto voice, his fey gestures and effects; but Hoffman goes much deeper and seems to fully inhabit Capote. It’s a staggering transformation which expresses all of Capote’s famed charm, intelligence and wit; but it also depicts his deceitfulness, narcissism, spitefulness and vulnerability. Hoffman takes a character which could so easily have lapsed into caricature and makes him live and breath.

Capote did eventually get the whole story from Smith; but then he desperately needed the pair to die so he could finish his book, and the years of appeals which postponed the execution began to tear away at his soul, hastening his slide into alcoholism. The final scenes in the film are devastatingly powerful. As Capote watches Smith hang from the gallows his relief is overshadowed by a gnawing sense of despair and guilt. He got his masterpiece, the last book he would ever complete, but at what cost? He left Kansas a broken man, and Capote is a spellbinding portrait of a writer who betrayed his subject, and in doing so betrayed himself.