Not that audiences will have any doubts, but if you talk to those who knew Truman Capote really well, Philip Seymour Hoffman gets him really, almost eerily right in the terrific Capote. Director Bennett Miller's gem is the first of two new films dealing with the writer's ordeal in covering the infamous Clutter family murder case and writing In Cold Blood, the classic non-fiction novel about the case and the perps. Although the crime at the center has already been immortalized in Richard Brooks' 1967 film adaptation of the book, Capote is a completely fresh take on the horrible crime and the two killers, especially Perry Smith, with whom Capote closely bonded.
Here, of course, Capote dominates all that happens. Dan Futterman's dazzling screenplay takes us from the writer happening upon the newspaper account of the crime during his habitual morning read, through the four tortuous years that ended with the eventual execution of Smith and accomplice Dick Hickock after a last appeal was denied to Capote, finally able to literally close the book (actually, the manuscript) of his intimate, eloquent and sprawling account of the case.
Miller is in no hurry to tell his story, but the film doesn't bore for a second. Hoffman's Capote speaks in the familiar high-pitched, childish, slow but deliberate drawl that was his signature. And the pacing is just as deliberate, including lingering shots of the remote Western Kansas plains where the crime took place, the Costa Brava coast where Capote managed an occasional break, the New York cityscapes depicting the writer's usual cosmopolitan world and, most disturbing, the prison's creepy outdoor installation where Smith and Hickock were eventually executed by hanging.
As it unfolds, Capote delivers a number of interesting characters who figure in its hero's journey. Writer Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), Capote's childhood friend, accompanies him as researcher and "bodyguard" on his first trip out to Kansas. She will soon learn that To Kill a Mockingbird, her first novel, has been accepted for publication by Lippincott.
New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban) assigns Capote the Clutter murder piece after the author calls to announce what his next article will be. When both recognize the richness of the material, Shawn shepherds the effort as a full-blown book. Once in Kansas, Capote brilliantly enlists the help of no-nonsense Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), who directs the investigation of the murders and allows Capote special access to material critical to the case. And, of course, there's killer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.), who grows close to Capote and becomes his primary access.
More than a gripping narrative, Capote is also a privileged glimpse into the mind of a diabolical, conniving journalist at work, a master manipulator and a pretty damn good liar. Nor do the filmmakers skirt Capote's homosexuality. As Capote deals with the pressures and grunt work of researching, updating and writing the complex account, he maintains a loving and respectful relationship with Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), also a writer.
While Hoffman's is the towering achievement, all performances are superb. D.P. Adam Kimmel, production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone immerse us in the time (1959 through the early '60s) and place, with Western Canada serving well for a number of the locations. Capote is a film to see and see again.
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