In the type of acting tour de la force that everybody loves unless they’re some kind of a dick, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Truman Capote, the famous writer and weirdo. Although the use of only his last name as the movie’s title seems to imply that it will tell the entire story of his life and maybe even the entire story of the life of everybody with the last name Capote, this is actually not a full on biography. The story is narrowed down to the 4 or 5 years when he was working on his famous book IN COLD BLOOD, starring Robert Blake.
The movie starts out with a young girl discovering the dead bodies of a family murdered in a farmhouse. And before you know it Capote and his research assistant Harper Lee (author of the book TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, starring Gregory Peck) are nosing around asking everybody questions. So at first I thought this was gonna be kind of a LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN thing with famous authors going around solving crimes. I bet the Marquis De Sade did these murders. Or Edgar Alan Poe.
Actually no, it’s the making of IN COLD BLOOD and the uncomfortable relationships and questions it brings up. At first Capote comes into this town and you think everybody’s gonna hate him. Even if he wasn’t such an eccentric sissy, he’s sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. You can’t help but feel a little queasy when he goes to the school and tries to talk to the poor girl that found the dead bodies, like he’s her buddy. But before you know it the girl’s giving him her diaries, he’s eating dinner at the chief of police’s house, and everybody in town wants to hear his stories about Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe. It’s uncomfortable because you know Capote is just using these people to get information for his New Yorker article (which later grows into a book).
Then it gets worse when they catch the killers. He weasels his way into getting access to their cells, and immediately becomes enamored with one of them, Perry. The way the movie portrays it he falls in love with this guy. And he starts to help them out. He finds them a better lawyer, ends up getting them all these appeals. He brings them books and has long deep conversations with them. Well, mostly this guy Perry. The other guy seems kind of amused that Truman is so obviously attached to Perry, and later kind of resentful.
The main hook of the movie is that ultimately Truman betrays these guys, because he realizes that unless they die he can’t finish the book. And it’s hard to decide what’s more disturbing, that he gets so close to these killers or that he starts lying to them. But for me the most uncomfortable scene is much earlier on, when Truman brings in his pal Richard Avedon to take photos of the killers. Truman talks about how he’s a famous fashion photographer, and they get them to show their tattoos and shit. I mean it’s like they’re taking a picture of Tupac for the cover of Rolling Stone. And all these small town cops are standing around watching this and you have to wonder how they feel about it. That’s how effective the scene is, it actually got me sympathizing with cops.
The amazing thing about Hoffman and about the movie is that somehow they make you not hate this guy. But you have every reason to think he’s a scumbag. He comes into this little town, exploits people’s misery, upsets the community by getting too close to the killers, then even betrays the killers and lies to them as he bids them farewell. Add to that the fact that Hoffman is mimicking Capote’s annoying voice and mannerisms, flaunting his rich boy lifestyle and constantly name dropping all the movie stars and writers he knows… I mean I really ought to hate this fucker. But I don’t. I don’t exactly love the guy. But I kind of feel sorry for him at the end. That there’s some of that movie magic you always hear about.
They also do a good job with the killers. In the movie IN COLD BLOOD they’re so scary but here they just sit around in a jail cell feeling sorry for themselves. Being buddies with Capote makes them seem harmless, but even when they’re executed they don’t let you forget what they did, showing some really brutal flashbacks of the murders. In that sense it reminded me of DEAD MAN WALKING, adding humanity to killers without glossing over their crimes.
I think this is a real smart approach to a biography type movie. In something like FRIDA they have to take so many shortcuts, trying to sum up a couple years in one scene or a long held philosophy in a dinner conversation. Here they stick to one part of Capote’s life but they make a convincing argument that this experience sums up what you need to know about his life. You learn how what happened before led to this and what happened after was because of this.
I know it’s tempting to make every life into a big epic but more storytellers ought to consider this approach. For example, Skander Halim should consider rewriting his whole script about my life so the climax is me flipping off Dick Cheney on the corner by the Westin. I mean really where do you go after that.
Anyway, that there’s some advice for you writers, and you’ll like this movie because it’s about writing. Seeing him there typing made me want to go home and write a book, to be honest with you. But not the same kind of book. Usually a movie about writers is about writer’s block, but this one makes you think maybe he’d be better off sitting in a room staring at the walls with a head in a box and John Goodman is on fire with an ax or whatever happened in that one movie. I learned alot of important lessons about writing and I will think very seriously about the ethics of the relationship next time I have an accused killer helping me out with a movie review if that happens for some reason. That would be weird.
One thing I want to mention, I seen ads for this movie and they talk about how critics love it and how great Philip Seymour Hoffman is, and then they don’t have him saying a god damn word. It’s like those ads for American releases of Hong Kong movies where there’s no dialogue because they don’t want you to think about it either being dubbed or subtitled. ‘Cause either one is a turnoff for somebody. Here, they don’t want you to know that Truman Capote in the movie talks like the real Truman Capote.
Anyway, I might as well end with one of my patented incorrect early Oscar predictions. I’m thinking P.S. Hoffman wins this sucker. Not just because this is a good performance, but because he’s a beloved character actor who doesn’t get too many chances for a lead role, let alone mouth watering oscar snacks like this. So this is the career award. And unlike David Strathairn in GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, Hoffman gets to cry in this movie. Academy voters love crying and if Hoffman can prove he’s not gay they’ll love that too, because they always think a straight man playing a gay man is some kind of impossible challenge. Remember, Greg Kinnear got a nomination one time for that reason.
I don’t see how this prediction could go wrong, but then I walked out of THE AVIATOR convinced that Leon Del Caprio was guaranteed an oscar. So don’t bet money on this one. But I’m right. This time for sure.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.