Capote (review)

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The Truman Show

His novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s was banned in the little town of Holcomb, in the ass end of Kansas, when Truman Capote went there in late 1959 to investigate the brutal murders of a local farm family. It’s not a fact that Capote makes a big deal out of — it’s just sort of slipped in sideways in an interesting revelation about one of the locals — but it’s a tidbit that keeps niggling at the back of my mind. The irony of it, you know: Capote was so moved by the short article in The New York Times about the murders, reading in his brownstone in Brooklyn, that he went to Holcomb before the crime was even solved, determined to write about the dead family and the impact the killings had on the close-knit town… a town that had already decided that he was a peddler of bad influence and inappropriate attitudes.

Except that makes the fine folk of Holcomb sound like unsophisticated bigots or, at best, rubes, and they aren’t at all, at least in how they’re portrayed here. They’re good, decent people — and not in that way that is a euphemism for “unsophisticated bigots or, at best, rubes,” either. (This may be entirely due to yet another supernaturally astonishing performance by He Who Walks on Water, Chris Cooper [The Bourne Supremacy, Silver City], as Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey, who speaks volumes of rage and grief and disdain with the smallest quirk of his lips or the tiniest shrug of his shoulders.) So the banned-book thing becomes more about knee-jerk reactions and how even good people misunderstand one another, perhaps even willfully, consciously not wanting to have any new information alter our comfortable prejudices. That even becomes, in one scene, the greatest praise one citizen of Holcomb can offer in re Capote and his pal Harper Lee (the always fabulous Catherine Keener: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Interpreter): “They’re good people.”

But Capote isn’t about the good people of Holcomb or even about the murders that shattered the town — not really. It’s about, although this only slowly becomes clear, Truman Capote’s capacity for self-deception, for avoiding facing his own mental reality, for not even understanding, probably, the source of his own genius. (Well, who does understand genius?) Capote is at first “merely” a darkly engaging portrait of a great American oddball, one that makes a point of agreeing with Capote himself, that he has been misjudged by those around him his whole life. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Along Came Polly, Cold Mountain) doesn’t impersonate Capote: he embodies the author so intimately that there is no artifice or actorly showiness in the Capote-isms: the lisping, the dapperness — even when Capote is being deliberately affected, as when he tells outrageous and dubious stories at parties, Hoffman finds the sincere confusion and insecurity behind it. Mostly, though, we see in Capote’s interactions with the people of Holcomb and with the killers what a tough son of a bitch he really is, how he uses the graciousness on his surface to coax people into telling him what he wants to know.

Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman (the actor, from Enough and Urbania and other films, making his writing debut), working from a book by Gerald Clarke, brilliantly skitter around the edges of the crime: this is not a courtroom drama or an apologetic for the criminals — though some of the people of Holcomb clearly fear that’s the direction Capote is heading in with his book. As the film settles into its grimly riveting unpeeling of Capote’s psyche, scenes that could have been about actually getting answers to mysteries — like, Just why the hell did the killers do what they did, anyway? — only raise intriguing questions, like What is Capote’s real motive in befriending one of the murderers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.: The Rules of Attraction, Traffic)? Is it a strange infatuation? Is it a genuine desire to see justice done? Or is the writer just a user, excavating this “goldmine” for a great story?

The questions are never answered, and perhaps never could be any more than this question is: Is Capote selfish? He certainly behaves rather abominably at points to Harper and to his lover, writer Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood: Being Julia, I, Robot), abandoning them for his work even as they beg for his attention. Maybe a great artist must be selfish, and great art is necessarily the result of selfishness?

There are no answer to be found in Capote, except — maybe — in the greedy glittering of Hoffman’s eyes.

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