Capote (Sony Pictures)
is the ultimate Fall movie, played for the award season with all class and no flash. Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays Truman Capote, who was for a time America's greatest living writer, with sublime calculation that is utterly award-worthy. Whether due to my not being familiar with Capote's visage or to the abilities of Hoffman, the movie star certainly becomes his character in a world-class suspension of disbelief. Much has been said of Hoffman's aural interpretation of Capote, which will furthermore referred to as "The Voice".
So, without The Voice, this movie calls to mind The Insider
in tone, and story. At its worst, save for all the Gus Van Zandt visual antics, this is very often an episode of Perry Mason
. The glib, self-important investigator nonchalantly leading us toward a killer's predictable confession does not lend to story, but to performance. Hoffman does the work of the writer by telling much more through his performance than the sparse script offers. Visually, this is not the usual period piece. There are no flashbacks to Truman's childhood, no voice-overs, and no deathbed wisdom set in 1984. Nothing is delivered in black and white, and thank God there are no sepia tones to break your suspension of disbelief.
In fact, its richest aspects are of it being a period piece. Even its most socially liberal commentary is dated and applied without irony or judgment. Capote bribes a prison warden to gain unfettered visitation with the subjects of his true crime novel. The oddest part is that in the second act Capote is played as a quirky pervert, and it is not impossible that at these moments we are laughing at him, not with him. The peak of its social liberalism rests in the film's refusal to show deference to homosexuality. Capote's sexuality is afforded the respect of not being played for martyrdom, and he's never a victim.
Quite the contrary, because without The Voice, Capote is a ruthless journalist out to get the story of two drifters in rural Kansas shotgunning a family in a fruitless search for a rumored stash of cash. "In Cold Blood" is the planned title for his book, and yet perhaps only because of The Voice, he is still blamed for being in love with the killers that he is writing about. While there are moments of tenderness between Capote and the killers while he visits them in prison, he is mostly manipulative and cold himself. Moments when the book's title is mentioned even suggest that Capote is the one with the truly cold-blooded nature.
Capote repeatedly lies to the killers about the title of his book. He claims he has been "called back east" when he is really just going to Spain to write the book that will betray their trust. When the killers want to use his book in their Supreme Court appeal, Capote admits without sympathy that he hasn't written a word because he wants to hear the details of the murder. In these passages, Capote is truer to his art than to the needs of his supposed love object, who is languishing in prison awaiting death by hanging. Harper Lee has ten times the sympathy and concern for the condemned, mainly by way of being slightly angry with Truman for using, and manipulating the killers in pursuit of literary greatness. Lee's dogged Southernness clashes with Truman's embracing his newfound Manhattan intellectualism and contrasts their feelings towards the prisoners' fates. Capote's alcoholism and his denial have him turn his back on the trusting inmates and ignore that many in his social circle are lampooning him for his proximity to the men.
If this is a movie for art house patrons and Oscar voters, perhaps is best serves as an indictment by examination of the voyeurism in the true crime genre. It pains us genteel watchers by showing us the murders themselves in gory imagery -- all the better for our post-theatre wine and cheese conversations. The book resulting from this drama, In Cold Blood,
was the precursor to what we now enjoy as CSI, Law & Order, NYPD Blue,
and the dozens of other voyeuristic trips we use to examine the goings-on of downtown after dark. When Truman reads from his unfinished manuscript to a group of 1960s NY elite, they are overwhelmingly appreciative of their as-yet-rare glimpse into the darkest part of life in the fly-over states. The camera captures the rapturous awe of intellectuals slumming, and it's as uncomfortable as sitting through a suburban viewing of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
This is not the traditional Oscar grab expected from the past Fall season. Capote is not portrayed as succeeding in spite of his homosexuality, in the way that Erin Brockovich once overcame her burdensome cleavage. In fact, the only triumph of the human spirit is exhibited in the graceful humanity of Catherine Keener's Harper Lee. Capote is not kind to its subject, examining the worst known parts of the man, yet still allowing moments where his art transcends his person.