Infamous (review)

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Portrait of the Artist as a Tortured Man

“I don’t have to act like a little windup toy with you,” writer and New York society wag Truman Capote confides to convicted killer Perry Smith in Infamous, and it’s a shocking and powerful moment, one of many. Capote, last year’s Capote flick, speculated that the author might have fallen in love with the subject of his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, but this startling and highly rewarding film goes a lot further: it all but says flat out that a deep sympathy that did indeed turn romantic is what drove the writer in his pursuit of part of the intimate story that turned out to be a best seller, his last book and perhaps his greatest work.

Yes, this is the second film in a year not just about the legendary Capote but about the specific years of his life that were consumed with the writing of In Cold Blood… and that’s just fine. Capote was bursting with enough personality to fill a dozen movies — and, as Infamous demonstrates, the mysteries of what the fascinating and enigmatic man experienced during his strange sojourn to the small-town Midwest offers plenty of opportunity for exploration and interpretation.
What’s known publicly will be familiar to anyone who saw Capote: the Kansas multiple murders that attracted the writer’s attention, his decision to examine the impact of the brutal crime on a small community, the resistence he met when he first arrived in Kansas and how he got the town to warm up to him, his jailhouse meetings with the killers. But where Capote was dominated by a single performance — Philip Seymour Hoffman’s centerpiece as the writer — this is a more well-rounded film, driven by a script both subtle and clever and a powerful ensemble, including British actor Toby Jones (Finding Neverland, Ladies in Lavender) as the writer, Sandra Bullock (Crash, Two Weeks Notice) as his friend and assistant Harper Lee, and Juliet Stevenson (Being Julia), Hope Davis (American Splendor), Isabella Rossellini (Heights), and Sigourney Weaver (The Village) as his cabal of society-lady pals. With a greatest focus on Capote’s circle of friends in New York — and how he acts as a weird conduit for gossip and a, well, windup toy that amuses and delights them all — Infamous takes a sly, sideways glance at Capote’s power as an observer of life: he knows how to get people to open up and talk to him. It’s manipulation of a sort, sure, but it’s not malicious, even when he’s passing on secret juicy tidbits about lurid affairs or collapsing marriages that he’s promised not to tell. Jones’s charming and complex performance makes Truman a greaser of wheels who manages to keep himself from getting greasy. This is a far more sympathetic portrait of the writer than Hoffman’s was — that’s not a criticism of Hoffman or Capote but a hint at what makes the two films perfect bookends for each other: they supply differing but perfectly plausible readings of how the writer did what he did, how he gave people what they needed — a shoulder to cry on, a sob story to share — in order to get what he needed.

And that is most obvious in his interactions with the killer Perry Smith, here a far more potent presence and a far greater emotional and even physical threat to Capote than he was in last year’s film. Daniel Craig (the new James Bond, Sword of Honour) is a compellingly masculine presence and a powerful foil for Jones. Their relationship forms the crux of Infamous, and serves to highlight the author’s paradoxical capacity for giving others the secret attention they crave while also seemingly neglecting his own needs and ignoring his own self-deception. It’s almost too intimate to watch, Capote and Smith’s strange connection, one that gets stronger as they trade stories of abandonment and emotional neglect, and while everyone will, in the wake of Craig’s assumption of the mantle of the superheterosexual 007, be talking about The Kiss — Truman and Perry lock lips in one riveting scene — it’s their simple psychological union that is most shocking, and mesmerizing.

Whether it’s true or not that Truman Capote fell in love with a man he was writing about is probably beside the point. Infamous is a compelling portrait of the demons and hidden weaknesses that drive genius artists like Capote. This is one of the best films of 2006 so far, and, ironic as it may sound, will be even better appreciated by those who also loved last year’s film.

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