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'Capote' Captures Layers of Motivation

By Jeremy Mathews
(out of four)
Sony Pictures Classics
Directed by Bennett Miller
Screenplay by Dan Futterman,
based on the novel by
Gerald Clarke
Starring Philip Seymour
Hoffman, Catherine Keener,
Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper,
Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban,
Amy Ryan, Mark Pellegrino, Allie
Mickelson, Marshall Bell and
Araby Lockhart
Rated R

"Capote” is one of the rare biopics that tries to navigate the complicated maze that is its subject’s mind, rather than simply racing through his life. Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and director Bennett Miller have created a complex character study of a man who masked fragility under arrogance and hid his emotions in his work. “Capote” doesn’t paint an easy-todiscern portrait, because it captures mysterious hints of motivation, a selfcentered persona and its contradictions.

The film studies Truman Capote’s life between 1959 and 1965, during which he wrote In Cold Blood, which reinforced his literary fame and which the author, true to his arrogant reputation, heralded as the creation of the non-fiction novel. But the process took a toll on his psyche. Capote never finished another novel in the remaining 20 years of his life, as he descended deeper into depression and alcoholism. The film’s narrow time period reveals some of the scars that may have pushed Capote over the edge, and hints at the past that brought him there to begin with.

He originally goes to a small Kansas town that has become the site of a brutal murder to write a piece for The New Yorker, and eventually finds himself in a relationship with the killers that can’t help but be more than a working relationship. In an astounding performance, Hoffman plays Capote as a man who wishes he could go through life with the glory that comes with his writing, but not the emotional responsibility.

“I don’t care whether or not you catch whoever did this,” Capote tells Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the sheriff in charge of the investigation, as if he expects this information to impress the quiet and sternlaw man and earn him priority over the other journalists. As if being from a publication with the words New and York in its title wasn’t enough to turn the entire police department off, Dewey takes his job seriously and sees no opportunity for elegant
prose in law enforcement.

Capote conceives his piece as a study on the murder’s effect on the town, so he and his research assistant, Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), start to endear themselves to the townspeople, even succeeding in charming Dewey’s societystarved wife, although the sheriff remains unimpressed.

Capote can’t bring himself to leave the town—or even start writing what he knows will be brilliant—and soon enough the two killers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), are apprehended and brought to the town. Capote builds a relationship with Perry, but isn’t honest with himself about his feelings or with Perry about the book. He sees himself as simply doing his job, but learning of Perry’s upbringing reminds him of his own childhood with a suicidal mother. At one point, Capote says he feels like he and Perry grew up in the same house, but he went out the front door while Perry went out the back.

At first Hoffman’s highpitched voice may seem like simply an imitation of Capote’s voice, but then the voice becomes natural and Hoffman completely disappears into the character. When he talks about his disturbed mother’s suicide or how people judge him as weird based on the way he talks, there are multiple layers of motivation. There’s a sense that Capote is simply delivering this information as a way of gaining sympathy from his interviewees so they will share their information. But Hoffman’s performance suggests that while Capote may be convincing himself of these manipulative motivations, he hides his sincerity within the guise of sincerity.

At other times he blatantly lies, letting Perry believe that the book might help him get out of jail, telling him that he hasn’t thought of a title. He can’t confront the truth. He forms an emotional bond, but knows that he needs them to die in order for his book to end. (“Why are they doing this to me?” he wonders when the men receive a stay of execution.)

Throughout his creative and mental struggle, Capote still loves to be the center of attention when he returns to New York City. The film introduces him at a cocktail party, surrounded by a crowd of admirers eager to laugh at comments tailored to keep the attention on him. After having haunting conversations with Perry, he’s doing the same thing, absorbing love through the ass-kissing of the literature elite.

The rest of the cast complements Hoffman’s work well. As Lee, whose To Kill a Mocking Bird finds a publisher and becomes a hit over the course of the film, the always-good Keener brings compassion and serves as a check-and-balance to Capote’s runaway egoism. Collins suggests the fragility of the killer while hinting at the dark brutality of the man who committed the crime.

In his narrative feature debut, Miller displays skills in both character study and visuals. The film is very fluid, with even the long, mostly static shots having some tilts and wobbles. Miller contrasts this with completely still shots near the scene of the crime to capture the eerie feeling that the crimes left behind.

This event did not only haunt the town, as Capote so eloquently captured, but took hold of the author himself. Miller and Hoffman find in the man who was drawn to depict the crime a series of ambiguities rather than a simple, easy-to-grasp caricature.


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