Janet Malcolm’s brilliant The Journalist and the Murderer opens with the provocative and, I think, madly overheated assertion that, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible.” This idea of the journalist’s inevitable betrayal of his or her subject is at the heart of the new film Capote (Sony Pictures Classics), which tells the story-behind-the-story of the writing of In Cold Blood. As directed by Bennett Miller and written by Dan Futterman (who cites Malcolm’s work in interviews), the grim story of Truman Capote and his seminal nonfiction masterpiece becomes a tale of duplicity and self-loathing—of the loss of a writer’s soul and the beginning of the end of his artistry.
The title character, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is the droll dandy that many of us recall from Capote’s TV appearances in the ‘60s and ‘70s: a pudgy Southerner with a voice that suggests both suckling and conniving, the voice of a baby mad scientist. A master manipulator, Hoffman’s Capote speaks so slowly that his listeners have to stop and hang on his every self-consciously dazzling word. With his books The Grass Harp and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, his New Yorker articles, and his screenplays, Capote has a cult following in the boho salons of Manhattan and Brooklyn. But how will his effeminate preening play in Kansas?
That’s where Capote heads in 1959—along with his doting friend, the future To Kill a Mockingbird novelist Harper Lee (a drabbed-down Catherine Keener)—when he reads of the inexplicable slaughter of an entire family, the Clutters, in their remote farmhouse. Capote cuts a bizarro figure in the American heartland—the look by Chris Cooper, as Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey, is a deadpan howl. But the writer uses his celebrity and the aura surrounding his magazine to open both official doors and jail cells. It’s in the latter that he develops an intimacy with one of the Clutters’ killers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). In gentle, understanding tones, he probes Smith’s memories, shares his own, and nudges the killer toward the big prize: a moment-by-moment account of what actually happened in the farmhouse on that hideous night.
In a key scene, Smith speaks hopefully of the effect Capote’s account of their inadequate legal representation will have on the appeal of the convicted killers’ death sentences; and Capote explains that he hasn’t started writing and doesn’t even have a title. He has and does, of course. He just doesn’t plan to finish In Cold Blood until Smith and his cohort, Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), have been hanged. The execution is going to be the book’s big finale. And while Capote cares for Smith, maybe even has a whopping crush on him, he becomes desperate to see him executed so he can finish the damn thing. Over the years it takes for the killers to exhaust their appeals, Capote’s inner conflict, between his empathy and his opportunism, eats him alive. He begins the heavy drinking that we’re told, in an end-title, will kill him.
Capote is dark and slow and gets darker and slower as it crawls to its emotional climax, in which Capote finally extracts from Smith the story of the murders—a climax presented as a triumphant piece of vampirism. It’s a fascinating idea—powerful and eerie on many levels (even if, in his book, Capote places Dewey in the room).
But I think something’s missing: that Capote transcended that vampirism, so that In Cold Blood fostered more understanding of why people kill than any book I know. The depth of the author’s humanity is in every finely-chiseled line. I admit I don’t know how Futterman and Bennett could have conveyed this split between life and literature, but a film about the writing of a book that ignores the alchemy of creation isn’t telling the full story. Although New Yorker editor William Shawn (a subdued and surprisingly lifeless Bob Balaban) speaks of Capote changing the face of journalism (he did), Capote views its subject’s achievement in the context of his celebrity and Malcolmesque exploitation. There isn’t a hint that in the end Capote memorialized Smith’s (and Hickock’s) pain.
The distorted mirror image that Capote told friends he saw in Smith is more talked about than dramatized, but the actors fill in some of the holes. As Smith, Collins finds the perfect mixture of neediness and cunning. And Hoffman: Talk about alchemy! When I heard he was cast, I was skeptical, because he’s so much bigger than Capote. But somehow he’s framed to look short. (Did other actors stand on platforms? Did Hoffman stand in a hole?) And while you’re aware of the nightclub impersonation aspect of the performance in the first few minutes, you quickly forget. Hoffman reportedly listened to many tapes of Capote (courtesy of his biographer, Gerald Clarke), and sometimes when gifted and porous actors faithfully duplicate the stammers and pauses and delicate rhythms of their subjects, they get inside those subjects’ heads—they become possessed.
That’s what obviously happened here: Hoffman goes beyond the surface mannerisms and diction. He disappears into Capote. There’s an extraordinary scene that features a good young actress named Allie Mickelson in which Capote seduces the girl (a close friend of the Clutters’ teenage daughter) by confessing to his own embarrassment at being different. It’s devious but true. Hoffman lays bare this whiny, wheedling, self-absorbed little man who nonetheless could see more deeply than almost anyone alive. If only Capote did more than hint at the transformative genius behind what he saw.