Alone in his Manhattan apartment, Truman Capote (Toby Jones) discovers the newspaper story that will change his life. It’s 1959 and far away in Holcomb, Kansas, a family of four has been brutally murdered. Truman is intrigued by this small town horror. He has “suspicions.” The bodies were “bound and gagged,” he tells his best friend Nelle Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock), as they chow down on diner hamburgers. The story has got him now, he tells another confidante, Slim Keith (Hope Davis), “It’s stuck in my teeth like a little piece of pull taffy.”
In Douglas McGrath’s Infamous, the second iteration of Capote’s writing of In Cold Blood in a year, the writer is at once publicly sure of himself and inwardly insecure, wanting so badly to be admired that he uses his and other people’s tragedies to forge innovative art (“I can alchemize what wounds me,” he says, “into art”). The apparent results — his inability to complete another book, his self-destructive drinking — are well-known, but the causation is surely more complicated than either this film or Capote before it suggests. And yet, these complications make Capote grand source material. Wildly entertaining and hinting at an interior darkness, the character called “Truman Capote” reflects and refracts the very criminals whose stories he tells. As Nelle says, she accepts Truman’s invitation to go with him to Kansas, not because, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird says so slyly, her father was a lawyer and she was “interested in crime,” but because, “It was deep calling to deep.”
In Infamous (and in Capote before it), the difference between Nelle and Truman’s understandings of this “deep” are telling. For Truman, the deep is by turns thrilling, tempting, and inevitable, a version of himself he finds in the killer Perry Smith (Daniel Craig), a version he can manipulate. For Nelle, the deep helps her to organize the world, to find principle where chaos appears rampant. Her opinions on Truman’s ethical teetering provide a way to gauge your relationship to him. A careful friend and artist (her one novel won her acclaim and awards, and with it, she was done), she suggests that writers “die a little” in their searches for perfect representation. She sees in that death a kind of nobility, an effort to make moral and philosophical distinctions. Truman doesn’t — or can’t — make such distinctions.
When Truman quite gleefully describes his plan to use “fictional techniques” to tell his nonfiction story, to shape the Clutter murders as an emblem of cultural malaise and destructiveness, Nelle is uneasy. There is, she insists, a knowable distinction between fact and fiction. “Either it is or it isn’t,” she says flatly, whereupon Truman explodes: “What is your stupid fucking point?” Calmly, again, she advises, “Reporting means recreating, not creating.”
But, as Infamous makes plain, this distinction can’t hold. Indeed, people “create” and “recreate” themselves each day, performing selves in order to be liked, feared, or respected. Truman engages in multiple performances, using his hobnobbing-with-celebrities stories to regale the Holcomb locals, including the by-the-book Kansas Bureau of Investigations agent Alvin Dewey Jr. (Jeff Daniels) and his wife Marie (Bethlyn Gerard) (Asked whether the “Bogie” he means is “Humphrey Bogart,” he smiles, asserting his own correction: “You mean Mr. Lauren Bacall.”) He uses the same tactic when gossiping with the “swans,” the Manhattan socialites who love his dark sense of humor, like Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver), Slim Keith (Hope Davis), and the extraordinary Marella Agnelli (Isabella Rossellini) (her costumes alone are nearly worth the price of admission, brocaded and hard-angled and oddly high-necked).
When Nelle suggests to Truman that toning down his flamboyance might open more doors in Holcomb, he sighs. “You of all people know how impossible it is for me to modify myself.” But even as he appears to get what he wants without much modification, the film also shows the costs, for him and, perhaps especially, for Perry (though the version of Perry you see here is filtered through Truman, who romanticizes him grandly). Even as Truman assures Dewey that he means well (he means to tell the story of “how a crime like this affects a town where everyone trusts each other”), the project changes shape as he becomes enamored of Perry.
On meeting Mr. Rough Trade, Truman is inclined to parade his difference from him — as an artist, an effete sophisticate. As he enters the block, other inmates whistle and taunt, acting tough. Truman, no surprise, is delighted. As he explains it, “The only way to deal with vulgarity is to rise above it,” giving back more cleverly than you get, usually demeaning the size of the offender’s member. That is, not rising above at all, but out-gaming your opponent on his own terms.
The film manages its own cleverness, in part a function of its source material, George Plimpton’s oral biography, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. Amid the comedy and drama of Truman’s evolving relationship with Perry as subject and object, the film inserts “interviews” with Truman’s acquaintances — Nelle, the swans, Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich), and Gore Vidal (Michael Panes). Catty even as they “play” earnest, they’re famous people played by other (mostly) famous people, emblems of the layers of performance and deceit that characterize the “famous.”
As they mark differences between fact and fiction (by their excessive artifice), these awkward inserts also distract from the film’s more compelling story, Truman and Perry’s mutual seduction and exploitation. Both men conjure romantic fantasies about each other, culminating in a passionate, hungry-seeming kiss in Perry’s cell that leaves Truman unsettled, drinking scotch alone in his hotel room. While Truman is entranced by Perry’s violence, he is also afraid of it, imagining in him an alternative version of himself. Both lost their mothers to suicide, both are reviled and self-loathing (differently), and both find outlets for their frustrations — Truman in art and extravagant self-styling, Perry in murder.
These inserts stress the book’s representation of Capote’s self-performing. He lies to his friends, he embellishes and changes stories as he repeats them. Though he tells Perry, “I never judge my characters,” he does, always. His lack of empathy is illustrated in his inability to anticipate Perry’s upset at that very self-assessment: “I’m not a character,” instructs Truman. “I’m a fucking human being.”
Perry tries again to teach Truman when he learns the book will be titled “In Cold Fucking Blood.” The killer draws the artist into his cell and mashes him into the wall, his hand on Truman’s tiny throat as he threatens rape (“I’m gonna fuck you”). Truman squeaks in fear, and the brute pulls back, satisfied with his achievement when he shows Truman a mirror. “You can trust me,” he says, as he cannot trust Truman. He only wants him to see his own face, taut with terror: “That’s how your fucking title made me feel,” Perry mutters.
But Truman can’t see. In Infamous, he becomes emblematic rather than individual, much as he makes Perry Smith emblematic in his book. He performs himself abundantly and ruthlessly (and Jones’ remarkable performance is different enough from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s to withstand comparison), refusing to be responsible for “wounds” he inflicts. Unable to be honest with Perry, fearful of having and losing him both, and finally, completely powerless to support him at the hanging (a dismal scene that argues the death penalty is utterly cruel), Truman is unable to forgive himself.