Note: This review was contributed by Ryan Stewart
"I feel like Perry and I grew up in the same house. One day he got up and walked out the back door, and I walked out the front."
Could Truman Capote really have felt such a strong psychic bond with a killer who blasted away an entire family with a shotgun? It's a question largely without an answer, since, as the author reminded us throughout his life, In Cold Blood was a work of art, not a document. Capote funneled the first act of a crime into an alloy of fact and poetry that shouldered the punishing demands of both genres - a serious artistic project that’s not even visible by telescope from today’s realityverse. He then waited for the last act of the crime to play itself out, a process that takes up most of the running time of Capote. Thankfully, the movie spares us Capote's own last act, as a sweaty talk-show popinjay and embarrassing ornament of New York's sleazy disco scene.
The violent, hateful murders at the Clutter farm on November 15, 1959 raised the prairie floor like an underground nuclear test, and the shockwave traveled across the nation and into the rare air of The New Yorker’s offices, where Capote picked it up and decided it was exactly the template he needed for his project. The murders would eventually be described in exhausting detail in the pages of In Cold Blood, but the book is also concerned with what led to those events. It meticulously follows the trail of two rudderless vagrants, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, as they make their way from small-time jobs out west to the bloodbath in Kansas to the noose. As viewers of Capote, however, we’re not privy to any of this. The movie is entirely anchored to Truman Capote’s personal point of view, (except for a bit of cheating near the end) which makes for a true crime movie that’s somewhat cramped and unsatisfying.
In order to make drama out of the process of researching and writing a book, the film bites down hard into every possible distraction, such as the factoid that Capote employed Harper Lee as his assistant for the door-knocking jobs to be done on location in Kansas. Catherine Keener is passable as the mannish Southern matriarch Lee, but the role isn't very taxing or even interesting. Her only purpose, other than to sift through the detritus of the crime scene, is to remind the audience from time to time that, hey, she is a famous person too. By the end of the film, we’ve even been to a premier party for the (lame) adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is ruined by a typically tippled Capote.
The titular performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent, but his work was obviously made easier through the flamboyant nature of Capote’s mannerisms. With his weak, Southern flower lilt and brow-mopping demeanor, any accurate portrayal of Capote is going to involve a good deal of impersonation. Gary Oldman did a great job playing Dracula, but it’s Dracula, after all. The bigger the character, the less of a burden there is on the actor to come up with something unique. Hoffman is good enough to ground Capote’s mannerisms down to the point of being non-distracting, but that doesn’t exactly solve the problem of giving him something interesting to say on-screen. It’s not a good sign that the director often resorts to showing Capote telling jokes and anecdotes in his New York haunts. You can’t put real thoughts and ideas in the mouth of a recently deceased author unless you can back them up, I suppose.
Hoffman’s best moments occur late in the film when the death clock has begun to speed up considerably on the killers. Appeal after appeal collapses, and it becomes a certainty that Hickock and Smith will be executed for their crimes. It’s at this moment that Capote must reveal his cards – he’s been holding off completion of the book not just to include the execution of the criminals, but to extract from them a first-hand account of the night of the murders. The literary ambitions of the book are pinned to the hope that at least one of the killers will see that execution is now inevitable, but a twisted kind of afterlife may be possible.
The dance between Hoffman and Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry (Capote’s relationship with Hickock is totally excised from the film) is a complicated one, and well played. Collins, who played the dangerous delinquent Cesar in Kevin Reynold’s 187, understands his role inside out. When Smith asks Capote if it’s really true that he knows Elizabeth Taylor, you sense that he might leap through the air and attack out of sheer frustration. He has no idea how he ended up with the short end of the stick in life. Capote, with all his intellectual bluster and pride at being self-taught, couldn’t have possibly believed there was a sincere connection between the two. He does sympathize with Smith’s situation, but the book is what’s important.
A first-hand account of true murder is always fascinating writing. That’s what Capote was waiting on all those years and he finally got it. There’s a moment in the film when Perry Smith looks up with his dead eyes and offers that he actually admired Herb Clutter - right up to the point where he cut his throat. Did Capote add some soap and water to that line, or was it actually delivered up to him as is? We’ll never know, but it stuns either way. It’s total carnality and almost defeats civilization with its revealing of our animal nature. I’m reminded of the Leninist assassin who participated in the mass shooting of the Romanovs in 1918. When asked to recall his memories of disposing of the bodies of the women and children, he said that it was the best moment of his life, because he got to ‘squeeze the Empress’s tit.’ Real life trumps fiction every time.