VOD film review: Capote
James R | On 05, Nov 2016
Director Bennett Miller
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr.
Philip Seymour Hoffman spent his career blending into the background – no mean feat for someone with such a strong screen presence. It was testament to his calibre as an actor that he managed the same thing even when taking a rare lead role in Capote, somehow magically shrinking to portray the diminutive writer.
Bennett Miller’s drama tells the story of Truman and the events leading up to the publication of his novel In Cold Blood, which is based upon the murder of a Kansas family in November 1959 by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. Capote befriends the two men and gradually extracts from them the details of the event over the six years preceding their execution. He manipulates Perry Smith by effectively seducing him in his jail cell, pretending to care about his plight to secure material for his book. He lies to others, contradicting himself on numerous occasions, and even to himself over the death of Perry, claiming he “wasn’t able to help”. His friend, Nelle Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is alone in pointing out the truth: he didn’t want to.
In Cold Blood was perhaps the greatest work of Capote’s career, pioneering the revolutionary genre of the non-fiction novel. As the relationship between writer and subject develops, it becomes clear that emotional involvement and journalistic aims can’t coexist easily. We, like Capote, feel sympathy for the quiet Perry Smith on some level, yet desire his death. For Capote, it brings personal gain; for us, justice for the chillingly-portrayed murders.
Miller’s drama, however, is centred on the character of Truman. Miller prioritises the author’s ruthless talent over the irrelevant and deliberately understated portrayal of his homosexuality. From his oiled hair, to his unctuous smile, the Janus-like man with the soft, feminine voice is expertly portrayed by Hoffman, causing even the tiny detail of Capote’s constant eye-shifting to become unsettling; it’s as though all his different sides are on display simultaneously, each one masked by another. He alternates from amusing to repulsive seamlessly, and it is clear that Truman Capote is a calculating literary genius, reducing everyone else in his mind to another controllable puppet. Catherine Keener is on typically superb form as the honest Harper, highlighting Capote’s underlying jealousy of her; the script’s overlooking of her character echoes his attitude towards her, quietly musing to himself that “he doesn’t see what the fuss [over her novel] is about”.
Clifton Collins Jr plays Perry Smith well, his quiet manner a stark contrast to his act of violence. Should we sympathise with him? Or even Capote? This film, seemingly rewarding emotional detachment, remains provocative and intelligent viewing.