Title notwithstanding, Capote is not precisely a portrait of Truman Capote. It’s more like the story of a cultural shift, embodied and perhaps even advanced by Capote (here played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). This shift toward self-involved and self-serving journalism, world-shaping as it can be, finds a brilliant new form in Capote’s work. A much lauded novelist by the time the film starts in 1959, he’s also restless, perhaps looking for trouble. He finds it in Kansas.
Here, in Capote‘s opening images, you see the crime scene that will draw Capote’s attention, a lonely farmhouse surrounded by snowy, November grayness. Inside, a neighbor finds a gruesome scene: the Clutters, a regular, well liked family, has been butchered, blasted by shotguns, knifed, their shattered faces covered. Within days, Capote has spotted the news item back in Manhattan and informed his New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban) that this will be his next project, a study of this most horrendous brutality in the U.S. heartland.
It’s not like Capote needs the extra work — the research and the excursion to Holcomb, where he will meet and bother Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper). Their edgy relationship is smoothed over some by the fact that Mrs. Dewey (Amy Ryan) is fond of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but it’s a good thing that Capote has brought along his childhood friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), whom he deems his “research assistant and personal bodyguard,” in order to help him comport himself among the common folk. Capote, the movie shows repeatedly, is most at home among smug, wealthy devotees of his work, who hang on his every word as he tells stories about famous friends, say, Jimmy Baldwin’s worries about the scandal that might emerge over his new Jewish boyfriend.
On the job, Capote is meticulous and self-conscious, ever aware of the way his scarf is arranged on his neck, even as he attends to details of corpses and crime scene photos. “It comforts me, something so horrifying,” he says after he sees the bodies, “Normal life falls away. I was never much for normal life.” His eerie intuition concerning the significance of particulars (he notes the way a killer has turned or covered a face, imagines novelistic motives) vaguely impresses Dewey, who thought he’d seen it all before this case, but Capote is more in love with his talent than any admirer could be. Plying one young interview subject, he caters to her desire for affirmation: “It’s hard when someone has a notion about you and it’s impossible to convince them otherwise. Ever since I was a child, people thought they had me pegged because of the way I am, the way I talk.” But, he says, his voice lilting defiantly, “They were always wrong.”
And yet, according to the movie, directed by Bennett Miller and adapted from Gerald Clarke’s book by Dan Futterman (free of Judging Amy, at last), Capote is pretty much undone by this experience. A closing note reveals that following the publication of In Cold Blood, the so-called first “nonfiction novel,” published six years after Capote begins his work on the New Yorker piece, Capote became a superstar and never wrote another book. Instead, he essentially drank himself to death, at 59. Apparently, this sad end begins in Capote’s creepy relationship with his protagonists, the murderers Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino). He develops a not-so-long distance relationship with Perry especially, as they develop something like mutual crushes, Perry being exceptionally rough trade, despite Capote’s romantic notion that they are alike. “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house,” he tells Lee. And one day, he got up and went out the back door, and I went out the front.”
Capote’s self-delusion drives the movie, which reshapes his ambition as a kind of psychic vampirism. At first, he’s thrilled by the attention Perry bestows on him because his young subject is so distrustful. Their first, semi-accidental meeting takes place as Capote wanders through the local law enforcement’s home, Smith in a cage in the back room, suffering pain from the scars on his legs and looking for aspirin. The camera peers at Smith through the bars, adopting Capote’s tentative remove, part intrigued, part arrogant, part swooning over Smith’s young-tough affect, Cherokee blood, and utter naïvete.
And yet Capote’s sympathy for his subjects is always tempered by his ambition. He has a story in mind, a shape for his climax, and he’s only waiting for it to proceed as he knows it will. Having gleaned the extraordinary, necessary darkness from his subjects, he now seems weary, or bored, or maybe afraid of his investment. And so he pulls back: he toils over his manuscript, he entertains fans, he prepares for a preliminary reading. His early efforts to find “proper” legal representation for Smith and Hickock, his visits to see them in prison as they appeal their death sentences, soon bore him, as he sees that the long the case stretches on, the longer he must put off his publication and his stardom. And so he lies to Perry when asked about more raising more funds or even using the manuscript in their defense, saying he hasn’t written a word — though you’ve seen him typing away in his hotel rooms.
Lee sees through much of Capote’s posturing, as does his extremely low-key lover Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood). But their attempts to push him on his own motives, to make him confess his self-interest and manipulations, tend to “fall away,” as he’s not, after all, much for normal. And, he insists, what he’s doing is more important than any single death by hanging. While the film allows glimpses of Capote’s struggles with the dilemmas before him — he self-medicates, resists responsibility for the emotional havoc he’s wreaking, won’t take Perry’s collect calls, and argues with Jack.
Still, he presses on, seeking salvation — or sustained celebrity — in his dazzling new book. “If I leave here without understanding you,” he tells Perry during one of their last meetings, the world will see you as a monster. I don’t want that.” But what Capote wants is his story, understanding filtered through his own genius. That story reveals the dangers of journalism in search of authenticity and based in intimacy. It also reveals the monster Capote sees in himself — or more accurately, the monster the movie sees him seeing.