Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Capote (Miller, 2005)

After emerging as an exceptionally strong character actor in films like Boogie Nights and Happiness, it quickly became clear that, despite his unconventional appearance, Philip Seymour Hoffman was a performer that needed to find his way into leading roles. He was simply too good, nearly drawing too much attention to characters that might otherwise have been forgotten. Fortunately, Hoffman has in recent years found the opportunities he so richly deserves in films like Owning Mahowny, Love Liza and now, a genuine star turn as eccentric writer extraordinaire Truman Capote. Hoffman is so well suited to Capote’s mannerisms, voice, wit and inner demons that it wouldn’t be a crime if this film existed simply as an opportunity to showcase Hoffman’s performance. Thus, it is a true delight to discover that Capote is much, much more than a conventional biopic in which we rush through the key moments in a complex life. It is a film that focuses on a critical period in Capote’s life and successfully uses those events -- their impact on him and vice versa -- to offer us a crystallization of the essence of the man.

It becomes clear almost immediately that Truman Capote was an unusual kind of journalist. It is hard to imagine a situation where his presence alone would not impact everything around him. The uncommon intellect, the celebrity and, of course, the trademark high-pitched voice all cause him to stand out dramatically in the small Kansas town of Holcomb. Indeed, he is a man that threatens to upstage a multiple homicide. Catherine Keener plays author Harper Lee, who accompanies Capote to Kansas partly to serve as a kind of buffer to his overwhelming personality. Initially, it seems as if the film risks becoming a retread of territory already covered in the film In Cold Blood; but, after Capote becomes immersed in his research, it becomes clear that there is indeed a compelling story behind the story. Capote uses his charm and other wiles to gain access to Perry Smith, one of the men charged with the brutal murder of four people. The relationship he develops with Perry is complex to say the least. Is it a friendship? Perry certainly thinks so, imagining that Capote’s goodwill must mean that his writing will somehow paint a flattering picture. There are times when Capote shows emotion in connection with Perry, but does he feel for the human or the subject matter?

There are other times when Capote seems indifferent to Perry’s fate, hoping that the court verdicts will be favorable to his writing schedule. His actions do not go unnoticed by Lee, as well as the local lawman played by Chris Cooper. Their objections barely register with Capote though and it is here where the film makes its most enlightening observation. Capote and Perry are heading in different directions – the former towards international fame, the latter towards execution – and yet they share an amazing similarity – the ability to disconnect from the feelings of others. For Capote, it allows him to persuade a murderer to give him the story of a lifetime without regard for the ethical nature of his investigation. For Perry, it allows him to kill. After bemoaning the length of the appeals process and the toll it is having on his psyche, Capote finally gets the ending to his masterpiece, but at what price?

Led by Hoffman’s accomplished performance, Capote is a deeply stimulating film that rises above the typical biopic. Rather than simply ask what Capote did or what he said or who he knew, it rightfully asks what Capote meant. By being the ultimate outsider, he was able to gain the trust of a killer and shed a little light onto a crime beyond comprehension.



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