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Truman doctrine
Capote’s cold comfort

Truman Capote claimed that with In Cold Blood he had invented a new art form, "the non-fiction novel." Whether or not that claim holds up in the history of literature, the concept is nothing new in cinema. Taking real events and shaping them into narratives — that’s pretty much what movies have been doing since Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915).

So it’s an irony Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) himself might have relished, that his foray into the genre should get the nonfiction-novel treatment itself. The film opens in 1959 when, giddy with the success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Capote comes upon a New York Times item about the murder of the Clutters, a family of four in tiny Holcomb, Kansas. Enlisting fellow writer and childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) as an assistant and "bodyguard," he heads west to write a New Yorker article about the town’s reaction to the crime.

For Capote, the story is about the collision between two Americas: the violent dispossessed and the respectable middle class. For the residents of Holcomb, the arrival of Capote is a collision between New York decadence and middle-American propriety. But the filmmakers, basing their work on Gerald Clarke’s 1988 biography, see the true story as more personal, and more universally tragic. In Kansas, Capote would meet the outlaw muse who would inspire his greatest work of art. But for this to happen, the muse must die — a sacrifice that will win Capote everything he desires at the cost of everything he is.

The sacrificial victim is Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), who, with Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), had butchered the Clutters for $50. As Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) brings the pair to justice, Capote’s eyes take in Smith’s shrunken height, tortured gait, and " changeling’s face." Smith is not all that different from him, Capote will tell him. The biggest differences being that Smith has killed and is condemned to die, two secrets that Capote must comprehend before his magnum opus can be finished.

Such an analysis would be pat if not for Bennett Miller’s stark and exacting direction and Hoffman’s performance. The latter reproduces with fluid mastery the voice, gestures, and somehow even the diminutive height of the literary gnome still familiar three decades after his heyday. More impressively, Hoffman conveys the subjective act of observation itself. Miller cuts from details such as the cotton-wrapped head of a victim to Capote’s face, and in it can be seen shock, compassion, and calculation as he converts the detail into prose — or cocktail chatter.

Indeed, after such bleak Kansas sequences, the New York party scenes pop like champagne corks. But, like everything and everyone else in the film, they are distractions. Capote narrows down to a two-man play, between Capote and Smith, with only one possible outcome. Capote’s project, one wag jokes, is a love story — between Capote and himself. As this chilling and wrenching morality play makes clear, he’s exactly right.


Issue Date: October 14 - 20, 2005
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