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The Independent Critic

Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Bruce Greenwood
Bennett Miller
Dan Futterman
Rated R
98 Mins.
 "Capote" Review 
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"I have 94 percent recall of all conversation. I tested it myself."

One night in November, 1959 God's country became hell on Earth when wealthy farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife Bonnie, their 16-year-old daughter Nancy, and 15-year-old son Kenyon Clutter were brutally murdered in Holcomb, Kansas by two ex-cons, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, who'd inaccurately been told the house would have in it $10,000.

It was in reading the initial news report of these killings that Truman Capote, already renowned author of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and a revered figure on the New York literary scene, would see his life change forever by a four-year odyssey that would transform a celebrated, eccentric and gifted author into a reclusive, deeply wounded and emotionally paralyzed man incapable of completing another book before his substance related death in 1984.

Long a quietly respected actor in independent films and undoubtedly one of America's greatest supporting actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't portray or play or mimic Capote...Hoffman literally channels Capote with an understated, yet mesmerizing performance that WILL, mark my words, be recognized with an Academy Award nomination this year and, quite possibly, a win for Best Actor.

Hoffman brings a startling humanity to a man that, in real life, often treated himself as a caricature. Openly gay, Capote presented himself as larger than life and could, with complete subtlety, command the attention of an entire room with his self-deprecating awareness masked by flamboyant mannerisms, eccentricities and humor. Truman Capote was one of THOSE celebrities...the celebrity who became as famous for being a celebrity as they were famous for their talents.

It would be tempting to reduce Capote to his public image, and yet in basing "Capote" on Gerald Clarke's book of the same name, award-winning documentary filmmaker Bennett Miller creates a psychological tour-de-force in his feature film debut by delving deeper and creating, essentially, two stories. The first storyline essentially follows the craft of writing. We are privvy to Capote's "process" of writing "In Cold Blood," from his research to his investigations all the way through to his manipulations and betrayals. The second storyline is more tragic in that we watch Capote's freefall from celebrated eccentric to tragic literary figure. It is in Bennett Miller's ability to balance these two storylines that "Capote" ultimately succeeds.

The eccentricities of Hoffman's Capote are balanced beautifully in the film by the quiet, constant presence of his longtime friend, Nelle Harper Lee (wonderfully captured here by Catherine Keener). At the end of the film, I found myself feeling a deep sadness that two such brilliant minds would never write another book. Lee served as Capote's research assistant during his first trip to Kansas, and beyond being a trusted friend also frequently softened the impact of Capote's flamboyant personality on a suspicious and wounded Kansas town. Yet, time and again, it would prove to be Capote who would win the trust of people by appearing vulnerable and accepting. With just the right balance, Hoffman presents Capote as a man who becomes so consumed with this story that it is impossible to determine fact or fiction.

Capote, in fact, "befriends" the killers, especially Perry Smith. About Perry, Capote notes "It's like Perry and I grew up in the same house, and one day he went out the back door and I went out the front," he tells Harper Lee. There has always been speculation, including by Truman's partner Jack (played here by Bruce Greenwood), that Truman had actually fallen in love with Perry and yet "Capote" never truly takes sides on such an issue. The brilliance of the script and the performances lie in the fact that we see glimpses of authentic compassion from Capote interspersed with betrayals, manipulations and clear examples of Truman doing or saying whatever it takes to get the truth and get his story.

As Perry Smith, Clifton Collins, Jr. is particularly strong in revealing a killer whose path may have been chosen for him. Instead of sympathy, however, Capote more appears to pity Smith. It is as if he's constantly aware that, barring his own writing talent, this could very well have been his own destiny. Mark Pellegrino, as Richard Hickock, has MUCH less to do beyond your basic "I'm a killer" scowl and a few moments of erotic flirtation with Smith (which is consistent with another theory on the killings...that Smith and Hickock had been lovers while in prison and Smith perpetuated the killings when Hickock attempted to have his way with young Nancy).

Other strong supporting performances are turned in by Chris Cooper as Kansas lawman Alvin Dewey and Bob Balaban as William Shawn, Truman's New York editor.

The cinematography by Adam Kimmel wondrously captures both the New York and Kansas atmospheres, along with the prison scenery. Kimmel utilizes a blend of black, white and gray to near perfection. Likewise, the production design captures the 50's and 60's time periods beautifully and, in particular, the deterioration of Capote over the years.

"Capote" blossoms as a film of tremendous intelligence and insight. For a film that has as its key components a murder, the death penalty and a man's psychological deterioration it is remarkably devoid of histrionics or emotional catharsis. "Capote" could easily have been transformed into a melodramatic journey through a tortured writer's psyche. Instead, thanks to the wise direction of Bennett Miller and the stunning performance of Hoffman, "Capote" transcends melodrama and becomes instead a profound journey through the life one of American literature's most brilliant yet wounded minds.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic