Watch the trailer (at apple.com).
Warning: Anyone who has not read In Cold Blood and would view revelations of incidents in and the outcome of that book as a plot spoiler for Bennet Miller's film, Capote SHOULD NOT READ this post.
About three months ago I picked up Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. It was one of those titles that had always been on my list of things to do, one of the "classics" that I knew I should at some point get through. Thing is, once I began reading, I discovered that it was also one of those books that one literally cannot put down. I devoured it in a day or two and was put off other books for weeks afterward, mostly because they were all so pale, so poorly written in comparison.
Bennett Miller's film, Capote, chronicles the years the author spent researching and writing the book that would make him the most famous author in America. While reading the New York Times, Capote discovered the story of the Clutter family, found murdered in their farmhouse in Holcombe, Kansas, and convinced his magazine editor to send him there to write a piece exploring the brutal murders' effect on the small town. In tow is Capote's long-time friend Harper Lee, whose book To Kill a Mockingbird would shortly be published and win her the Pulitzer Prize.
The two blow into town as preparations are being made for the Clutter family funeral. They are a study in contrasts. Truman Capote had a lisping, child-like voice and the mannerisms of a precocious boy who never grew up. Philip Seymour Hoffman truly and entirely inhabits the character -- as drunken bon vivant on the New York party scene; as ambitious and sometimes manipulative author ferreting out the true story that will seal his fame; and as vulnerable outsider, knowing that his blatant homosexuality leaves him open to attack and dismissal by the Kansas locals.
Catherine Keener's Harper Lee is equal parts empathy and detachment. She is both buffer and apologist for Capote, checking his ego when it gets out of control and acting as a conscience he will almost always ignore. She is Capote's open-faced, plain-spoken, somewhat dour lifeline to the locals. As Truman says, "The only person qualified to be both a research assistant and personal bodyguard."
The chemistry between Hoffman and Keener perfectly captures the nuances of a friendship that has lasted since childhood. Truman and Harper know each other well and have already made peace with one another's shortcomings.
While Capote and Lee are in Holcombe, slowly ingratiating themselves with the locals and teasing out the Clutter family's story, the murderers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock are apprehended. A trial ensues and the two are found guilty and sentenced to death. After several years of appeals that reach all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Smith and Hickock are hanged.
The film follows Truman Capote's pursuit of the story through his development of personal relationships with the lead investigator, Alvin Dewey and with one of the murderers, Perry Smith, tracking the (at times) ruthlessness of the creative process and exposing the callous calculations of art and commerce journalism. Though In Cold Blood would make Truman Capote's career, it would be the last book he completed. Capote exposes the machinations the author went through to manipulate access to the murderers, the investigators and the family's closest friends. It reveals him as both compassionate confidante and ambitious opportunist, pursuing his subject relentlessly.
There is a passage where Truman describes the night of the Clutter family murders as the moment when "two American worlds converged" -- the quiet conservative America was fatally confronted with the criminally violent one. It reminded me of the recent disaster in New Orleans, another moment when two very different Americas collided and forced us, however briefly, to confront our reality. The hurricane blew off the façade of eternal prosperity to reveal a layer of crushing poverty just beneath the surface. Truman confronts the tenuousness of his own reality via the intimate relationship he develops with Perry Smith, describing the two as "having grown up in the same house," their childhoods are so similarly plagued with abuse and neglect. Where Smith had chosen to leave the house by the back door, Capote had left using the front. Otherwise their fates might have been reversed.
Because it captures moments so perfectly, with slight gesture, austere landscape and perfect line, Capote sparks ideas and insights throughout. When Truman reveals that he will name his "non-fiction novel" In Cold Blood, the multiple meanings behind that title came instantly to mind: it describes how the murders were committed, how the family was found and how the story was pursued.