Movies We Like
2005 was my favorite recent year for American films. We had Batman Begins, Brokeback Mountain, and a re-release of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows from 1958. (That technically shouldn’t count but it’s such a cool movie I have to include it.) As much as I liked those films, though, Capote was the one that made the biggest impression on me. It’s got a fearless Academy Award winning performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and it’s both a fascinating true crime story and a keenly observed morality play.
Capote traces the genesis of Truman Capote’s masterpiece "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood, from the shockingly violent mass murder in a small Kansas town that was its subject to Capote’s ascendance as one of the most revered authors of his time. What transpires in between is a disturbing account of an artist manipulating the source of his inspiration - his death row muse, if you will - into providing him with the necessary materials to make an undisputed literary work of art. In Cold Blood is one of the most important books of the 20th century, not only for its brilliantly paced tragic story but also for its resolute humanization of its despised protagonists. But it’s not left wing agitprop; it’s a chilling glimpse into the depths of darkness. What director Bennett Miller does with his film is to posit that Truman Capote crossed an ethical line by getting in the middle of his story and that, for all of the success it brought him, it sowed the seeds of his later ruination.
The film opens with beautiful and hauntingly quiet scenes of the rural Kansas plains and I’m reminded of author Walker Percy’s observation about the "loneliness of the Midwestern sky" in his book The Moviegoer. If ever a place could be described as beautifully serene and yet undeniably bleak it’s the rural Midwest. It’s a lonely place, but not a place anyone would have associated with brutal violence at the time the story takes place. A neighbor girl to the Clutter family stops by in the morning and finds the corpses of the four Clutters in their beds. Truman Capote, sequestered in the pizzazzy world of late-1950s New York intelligentsia sees a newspaper item about the murders and decides to go to Garden City, Kansas to follow the story for the New Yorker. When the murderers are caught he gets to know them on death row and gets into an intense emotional relationship with Perry Smith, the more articulate of the two. The relationship between the two men is complicated and director Miller depicts it as full of layers of meaning and nuance. On some level Truman identifies with Smith as an outsider and genuinely wants to help him. But he’s also an artist using Perry as a muse and, once he finds a place within the story he is covering, he starts to manipulate it to his own ends and this has terrible consequences.
Hoffman inhabits the role of Truman Capote with his usual depth of understanding. It would be easy for an actor to run away with the character of Capote as an outsized camp monstrosity. He was a naturally outsized personality. Camp was part of Capote’s arsenal for dealing with the world on his own pugnacious terms. He could be charming or repulsive, adorable or toad-like. He stabbed his friends in the back and may have hurt Perry Smith’s chance for an appeal. He also fleshed out the tragedy of the Clutters and their murderers better than probably anyone could have. Hoffman captures Capote’s corruption and narcissistic need to self-destruct but also the man’s tenderness and vulnerability and, let’s not forget, his genius.
Capote won an Oscar for Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was nominated for an additional four Oscars: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Dan Futterman).