November 17, 2005 -- “Capote” is a brilliant character study about a great writer in the process of writing his masterpiece and becoming emotionally unglued at the same time. Philip Seymore Hoffman is a shoo-in for an academy award nomination for his searing portrayal of Truman Capote's downward spiral during the four years he spent researching and writing his greatest book, “In Cold Blood.” Capote was never able to wash the blood off his hands after he manipulated the justice system and two young killers into giving him the exclusive story he wanted. After he gets the story, he sells the two killers down the river, because he knows he doesn't have much of a book unless the killers are executed.
In a sense, Capote's work on “In Cold Blood” is an extreme example of journalism. What Capote does, lie to his sources, bribe officials to get access to them, pretend to be a friend to his sources, use the justice system to pressure his sources into telling him what he wants to hear, are techniques that are not all that different from what many journalists have done, or would have done if they had the money at Capote's disposal. Capote (a homosexual) is torn between his affection for killer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr. of “Mindhunters”) and his desire to write a masterpiece about the murders of four members of the Clutter family near Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. Smith and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino of “National Treasure”) are tried and convicted of the murders and sentenced to death by hanging.
In an effort to convince Smith and Hickock that he is their friend, Capote hires a good lawyer to handle their appeal, but becomes frustrated when the appeals delay their execution date repeatedly. He confesses to his friend and fellow novelist Nelle Harper Lee (played brilliantly by Catherine Keener of “The Interpreter”) at one point, “If they win this appeal, I’m going to have a complete nervous breakdown. I just pray that it turns my way.” But the appeals did turn Capote's way, after he cut off legal aid to Smith and Hickock. He had one last duty to perform, witness their execution. He did not want to go, but was shamed into it by Lee.
The movie makes the argument that “In Cold Blood” marked Capote's crowning achievement and also the end of his career, but he actually embarked on another ambitious project, a novel called “Answered Prayers.” When the first chapter of it was published in Esquire magazine in 1975, it led to alienation by Capote's glitterati friends, who saw themselves portrayed unflatteringly in the book. He went downhill fast after that. Capote was a shameless self-promoter and loved the attention and praise of the elites. There are very funny scenes early in the movie showing Capote holding forth in high society, and stooping to pay people to praise his books.
The acting in the film is tremendous, led by Hoffman's Oscar-worthy performance, and nearly matched by Catherine Keener. Keener is having a great year with excellent performances in “The 40-year-old Virgin” and “The Interpreter” as well as this film. Chris Cooper (“Seabiscuit”) is good as the taciturn lawman Alvin Dewey and veteran character actor Bob Balaban (“A Mighty Wind”) shines as New Yorker editor William Shawn. The screenplay by Dan Futterman is smartly written. The movie is deftly directed by Bennett Miller (“The Cruise”). The cinematography, by Adam Kimmel (“Almost Heroes”) captures both the bleak midwestern landscapes, the brightly-lit Mediterranean exteriors and the softly-lit New York interiors with equal authenticity. This is one of the best films of 2005. It rates an A.
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