In the bleak early winter of 1959, Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), seated in a Kansas farmhouse, gazes sadly through his horn-rims, explaining to the woman he’s interviewing why people have always underestimated him. They see ”the way I am, the way I talk,” he says; often, they see little else. Capote, the Southern-bred literary star, boozer, and gossip queen, has journeyed to Holcomb, Kan., to do a story for The New Yorker about the murder of the Clutters, a modest farm family slaughtered in their home, without apparent motive, one horrible random night. He senses that the crime, its gruesomeness bursting the facade of ”normal” America, has the makings of a drama as potent as any fiction. He is about to spend six tormented years of obsession tearing his soul apart to write the revolutionary true-crime masterpiece In Cold Blood.

In Capote, the rapt, absorbing, and thrillingly perceptive biographical drama written by Dan Futterman and directed by Bennett Miller, we can see why folks underestimate Capote. Disarming expectations is the key to his method. As a personality, he exudes the fey mock exhaustion of a blasé munchkin, and that makes him easy to dismiss. His voice is a whine that turns into a moan that crests with a sigh topped with a baby’s gurgle. He sounds like Carol Channing on quaaludes. Hoffman, in his sublime, must-see feat of a performance, plays that famous foppish lilt like a hypnotist’s instrument, getting you to forget, in 30 seconds, that you’re seeing an impersonation. He makes Capote a mesmerizing raconteur who gets people to trust him by nudging his fragility and genius into the center of every encounter.

Capote, assisted by his friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), knows how to use his celebrity to gain access to a community’s secrets. He makes an ally out of Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the stern Kansas Bureau of Investigation official, and once the killers, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), have been captured, tried, convicted, and given the death sentence, he bribes the prison warden to gain access to Perry, who will become the key figure in his story: his portrait of America’s hidden, violent heart.

The bond between Capote and the moody, sensitive Perry is the core of Capote. Visiting Perry behind bars, the author becomes his confidant, confessor, psychiatrist, and friend; he even takes on the role, in spirit, of doting lover. His identification with Perry is an honest one: He grew up as such an outsider himself that he looks at this killer and sees a kindred soul. Yet Capote’s ruthlessness is there in the way he exploits the friendship in the guise of perpetuating it. He arranges for lawyers to win a stay of execution, all because he needs to get the goods from Perry, only to abandon the case when it becomes convenient for the killers to die. His ”method” works, yet it eats away at him, allowing him to create a seminal book and destroy himself in the process. Hoffman makes Capote’s dissolution a theatrical miracle of devastation. In his final scene with Perry, he’s so conflicted that he does something I’ve never seen on screen: He cries, honestly, and lies at the same time.

Capote has one nagging flaw. Clifton Collins Jr. plays Perry (strikingly) as a kind of sociopathic James Dean, yet he never quite musters the rage of a killer; he lacks the twitches of self-loathing that Perry had in the book, and in Robert Blake’s portrayal in the 1967 film adaptation of In Cold Blood. That said, Capote honors its subject by doing just what Truman Capote did. It teases, fascinates, and haunts.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman); Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener); Best Director (Bennett Miller); Best Adapted Screenplay (Dan Futterman)

  • Movie
  • 115 minutes