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click to enlarge Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) and Truman Capote (Philip - Seymour Hoffman) contemplate mockingbirds and - murder.
  • Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) and Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) contemplate mockingbirds and murder.

*Capote (R)
Kimball's Twin Peak

When actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and his friends Dan Futterman and Bennett Miller decided to make a film about iconic author Truman Capote, they made some intriguing and effective choices.

Instead of memorializing Capote with the standard film biopic, traveling from childhood through illustrious career to death, the producer/star, screenwriter and director chose to limit their drama to one brief era of his life, the years he spent writing his tour de force, In Cold Blood.

It was a good choice on several counts. Most viewers will be more familiar with In Cold Blood than with the author or his other work. And the Gerald Clarke biography, on which the film is based, delved into the moral confusion and Faustian dilemma Capote faced, reaching the pinnacle of literary success while becoming emotionally entangled with Perry Smith, a former Kansas prison inmate who, alongside fellow drifter Richard Hickock, murdered the Clutters, an innocent family of four in the Kansas heartland one cold November night in 1959.

Volumes of criticism have been written about the book and author, and the conclusions they draw are multiple and intricate. Many agree that Capote breached journalistic ethics by befriending Smith and leading him to believe that he would help him fight his death sentence. Others argue that Capote, more than any other author, unveiled the psychological makeup of a killer with great empathy for both Smith (and to a lesser degree, Hickock) and his victims.

Now comes Capote, an uncommonly thoughtful portrait that paints the author as a complicated and troubled man, caught in an enormous true-life drama from which he could not escape, even after the book was finished.

Hoffman's impersonation of Capote is uncanny in its vocal similarity and physical resemblance, but it is far from one-dimensional. In scenes where Capote visits Smith in his prison cell, trying to pry from him a confession detailing the night of the murders, Hoffman listens with a horrified expression that seems to say, "I can't believe I'm hearing this," and, at the same time, "I've got to get this all down."

Clifton Collins Jr.'s depiction of Perry Smith is equally mesmerizing. His dark brooding and artful intensity hint at a complexity that naturally would appeal to Capote, a homosexual who considered himself a misfit. Collins' scenes with Hoffman brilliantly articulate the artist's dilemma and the essential mystery of the murderer.

Supporting performances by Catherine Keener as Capote's lifelong friend, author Harper Lee, Chris Cooper as Kansas Bureau of Investigation chief Alvin Dewey, Bob Balaban as New Yorker editor William Shawn, and Bruce Greenwood as Capote's partner Jack Dunphy are slim and underdrawn, but adequately played. The depth of Capote's relationship with Smith fails to extend to these essential friendships, but the impact on the overarching drama of the film is minimal.

Cinematography that emphasizes the emptiness and flatness of western Kansas (actually filmed in Manitoba) lends the film a subtle, legendary quality. Period details contrast the homely interiors of Kansas with the lushness of Capote's New York apartment and his vacation home on the Costa Brava of Spain.

Capote depicts an artist's dilemma and ultimate demise when faced with selling his soul for a story. In the end, In Cold Blood became an American classic while Capote became a drunk, destined to die from complications of alcoholism at age 43. One brief scene in the film, Capote's first reading from the work for a New York audience, reminds us that the work endures not only because it told a great, true story, but because a great writer raised it to the level of art, for better or worse.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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