Biopic shows Capote’s slow descent to madness

In late 1959, Truman Capote, author of “Other Voices, Other Rooms” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” embarked on a new project, what would become the first nonfiction novel.

Noticing an item in “The New York Times” about the apparently unmotivated murder of an entire Kansas family, Capote decided to travel to the small town of Holcomb to document the investigation into the brutal crime. The resulting book, “In Cold Blood,” would make Truman Capote a household name, while the process of writing it would prove to be his undoing.

Bennett Miller’s new film “Capote,” based on the biography by Gerald Clarke, takes an unflinching look at the author’s triumphs and his deterioration as he writes his masterpiece. Capote was a born storyteller, a man who knew how to hold an audience’s attention, whether it be at a public reading or a cocktail party. But Capote was more at home in the realm of fiction. Miller’s film shows us a man unprepared for the reality he would find in Kansas, a reality that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

In the title role, Philip Seymour Hoffman is astounding. He doesn’t quite mimic Truman Capote’s flamboyant affectations, but instead disappears into the portrayal of a character we can recognize as Capote. It is a total performance. Not for a moment do we see the actor break out of character. It is almost unthinkable that Hoffman would not be nominated for an Oscar.

Capote initially has difficulty in drawing statements from unwilling Kansans, preferring to allow his friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), soon-to-be author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” to conduct the interviews. But he quickly finds his footing, winning over the lead investigator Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) with stories of Humphrey Bogart and coercing a young girl into handing over her diary by relating to the outsider he senses in her. Watch Hoffman’s eyes, darting back and forth, trying to get a read on whomever he is talking to.

After the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, are caught, Capote begins interrogating them in their cells. Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) is somewhat peripheral to the story that “Capote” tells. It is Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) that Capote becomes infatuated with. After finding that they share common childhood traumas, the two establish an empathetic bond, but how much is Capote manipulating Smith and how much is Smith manipulating Capote?

As the killers’ executions draw near, Capote’s actions become more and more questionable. He slips into alcoholism, filling baby food jars with bourbon. When a letter from Smith asks him to find another lawyer in a seemingly endless string of appeals, Capote ignores it, sealing their fates, and his. Yet he shows up at their hanging, a weeping wreck. He will see his story through to the end, even if it devastates him.

If it sounds as though “Capote” makes the killers overly sympathetic, it is not so simple. Miller holds off on showing us an actual depiction of the killings until late in the film, just as the real Capote held off on describing the grisly details until late in his book. The effect in the movie is to shock us back into reality, reminding us what Hickock and Smith are capable of, which Capote has clearly allowed himself to forget by this point. It is more effective because the sensitive Smith was the triggerman.

What I admire most about Miller’s film is the way it enriches Capote’s book. “In Cold Blood” was written in the third person omniscient tense, effectively removing the author’s presence from the text, despite the vital role he played. “Capote” re-inserts him, showing us the depths he sank to in order to blaze a new narrative path. It is a sad story about a cycle of lives being destroyed, all because of one horrible night in Kansas.