Directed by Bennett Miller. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban, Amy Ryan, Mark Pellegrino. (2005, R, 98 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Oct. 28, 2005
When news broke of two competing Truman Capote biopics, Capote and the locally shot Have You Heard?, the prospect was thrilling, an arthouse High Noon. Usually when Hollywood gets the same idea twice, it’s reserved for dueling natural-disaster pics – volcanos, errant asteroids, gruesome stuff the market never seems to tire of. But two prestige projects about a brilliant but long-dead writer? Have You Heard? is handicapped by a later release date, and its Capote stand-in, relative unknown Toby Jones, will have to struggle mightily to dislodge the memory of Hoffman’s commanding performance in Capote (an Oscar nod is a foregone conclusion). But in the big-picture department, there’s some wiggle room: Capote is a good film, but it hasn’t closed the book on the subject, not by a long shot. First-time screenwriter Dan Futterman has narrowed his focus to the years surrounding Capote’s work on the seminal In Cold Blood. After a quick expositional party scene – see Truman in bitchy, dishy party mode surrounded by sycophants – the film launches into his discovery of an unsolved multiple homicide case in Holcomb, Kan. His gut tells him to go to Kansas to dig in deeper, and so he does, accompanied by his childhood friend, the writer Harper Lee (Keener). The plainspoken, plain-faced Lee proves an invaluable companion; she knows how to approach – and be approachable to – the citizens of Holcomb, whereas the flamboyant Capote alternately dazzles and repulses the small town. As their investigation deepens, and two suspects are arrested, Capote realizes the piece warrants more space than a typical New Yorker piece would allow, and thus In Cold Blood is born. With characteristic self-promotional bombast, Capote predicts the as yet unwritten book – "a nonfiction novel," he calls it – will change the face of journalistic writing, and he’s right. Capote provides an absorbing, if limited, look at the writing life: its physical and mental demands and its moral ambiguities. Capote develops an intense bond – sometimes empathetic, just as often parasitic – with accused killer Perry Smith (Collins Jr.), wooing his way into Perry’s confidence by promising him a better lawyer, a sympathetic audience, and, most devastatingly, his friendship. Their scenes in the jail cell together, during which both actors are at the height of their considerable powers, are fascinating, sometimes luridly so. Less engrossing are the scenes set outside the jail cell, including a barely there subplot involving Capote’s neglected lover, the writer Jack Dunphy (Greenwood). Director Miller (whose sole previous credit is the Timothy Levitch documentary, The Cruise) has transitioned ably into his first narrative feature, working in concert with Futterman to produce a film that is confident, mature, and measured, as subtle as Mychael Danna’s somber piano score. But I wonder if it all isn’t too controlled. There’s an old screenwriting adage, "enter late, leave early," that may be overapplied in the film. The beats are all there; Capote’s trajectory begins with a reporter’s initial impartiality, slides into complicity, takes a hard-right turn into ruthlessness and ends, finally, near catatonia as Perry’s execution date looms. But the film doesn’t linger in these states long enough. They are noted, but not especially explored. The fault does not lie with Hoffman (who doesn’t so much act out Capote’s distinctive mannerisms and high-pitched lisp as channel them); his performance is undeniably great. Everything else – solid, satisfying though it may be – falls short of that greatness.