Wednesday, February 22, 2006

CAPOTE - Great performances but not a great movie

I am rather conflicted about the much-praised movie, CAPOTE. The movie attempts to give us the essence of the character and life of American author Truman Capote by focusing on the years 1959 to 1964. We meet Capote enjoying the success of the novella, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, holding court at the kind of jazz-and-gin-fuelled parties depicted in the movie starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. Capote himself is an absurd figure. The victim of a troubled childhood, he escaped Alabama for the New York literary scene. He is over-weight, speaks in a high-pitched nasal whine, and is extremely camp. He hangs around with his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, who is on the verge of astronomical success with her novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

One day, Capote reads of a seemingly random act of violence in small-town Kansas. A well-loved, upper-middle class family have been gunned down in their own home, all for fifty bucks and a radio. Capote persuades The New Yorker magazine editor, Wallace Shawn, to finance a trip to Kansas to investigate and write-up the impact of the murder of the Clutter family on a small town. His interest is not in “whodunnit”. However, once he meets the two boys who committed the murders, the magazine article turns into a full-scale “non-fiction novel” and the anti-“whodunnit” becomes a “why-did-the-do-it”. Four years later, he has formed a friendship of sorts with Perry Smith, one of the murderers, and has the majority of what he knows will be a revolutionary and brilliant book. Capote wants to contrast the parallel worlds within America – that of the prosperous, god-fearing folk of Holcomb – with that of the misfits and under-class, who had survived abuse and abandonment and for whom petty crime was the only option. Capote wants to humanise the murderers, with whom he undoubtedly empathises, and the title of his book, 'In Cold Blood' should be seen as ironic.
For Perry Smith, the book is also a chance to put his side of the story to the American public. The key point is that the murders were not pre-meditated, but part of a heist gone wrong. However, for Perry, son of a violent father and alcoholic mother, collaborating with Capote also brings what he thinks is friendship.

What the movie CAPOTE tries to do is show Capote’s conflicting emotions and motivations. At first, he finds Perry a better lawyer for the initial appeal. He needs Perry alive to pad out the novel. But more than that, he feels genuine empathy for the poor kid. But as the process drags on, he lies to Perry again and again about his progress on the book. This culminates in a scene of breath-taking cruelty where Capote essentially emotionally blackmails Perry into recounting the gory details of the night of the murders.

The movie gets a lot right: the acting performances are universally out-standing. Philip Seymour Hoffman has long been proving his ability to create characters of psychological complexity in movies such as FLAWLESS, MAGNOLIA and LOVE LIZA. He deserves the accolades he is currently receiving. Catherine Keener plays Harper Lee with a quiet strength, laughing off the misogyny of the New York literati and quietly screwing Capote’s courage to the sticking place. Contrast this with her quick-thinking hard-ball in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, or her sweet, down-to-earth character in THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN, and you begin to appreciate her range. But the performance that really stood out for me was by Clifton Collins Junior as Perry Smith. He manages to convey the subtle wavering – how far and at what point does Perry realise that Capote is deceiving him? How far does he let himself believe in Capote’s friendship because he simply needs to feel that someone is there for him?

But while this is film of great performances, I do not think that CAPOTE is a great film. There are two key problems. The first is simply slow pacing which leads to periods of boredom. The screenwriter and director are trying to convey Capote’s frustration with the judicial appeals process. After four years of working on the novel, he simply wants to write the ending and be done with it. However, too often, the pace of the film itself slackens. The second problem is more fundamental to the project. In using the “In Cold Blood” episode to explore Capote’s personality and life, I feel the screenwriter is exploiting Perry Smith and his story in exactly the same way that Capote did. Perry Smith got used by Dick Hickock, his partner in crime, and got used by Capote, and now he is being used again. There is something ironic and hypocritical in Dan Futterman criticising Capote for exploiting a man, and then doing exactly the same thing himself.

CAPOTE premiered at Telluride 2005 and went on limited release in the US and Canada in the autumn. The film played at Berlin 2006 and opens in the UK on the 24th February, Germany on the 2nd March and France on the 8th March.


  1. Just thought I would make a correction for you. At least, I think it's a correction, I haven't seen the movie, so perhaps they change the spelling of the town. But the name of the town that the Clutters lived in was Holcomb, Kansas.. not Hokum. It doesn't matter much, but as I was born and raised just over 30 miles from there, I know the place well. My grandma knew the Clutters actually, and a friend's uncle was one of the first police officers on scene.

    Not sure if I want to see this movie. I watched the movie for In Cold Blood on television a few years ago when they made yet another version, and it chilled me to the bone. I own the book, which is signed by Capote, but have never read it.

    No point to my rambling really. Just thought I'd make mention of the spelling. Take Care.

  2. Thanks for the correction, Carrie. If I were you I would skip the film. Not just Perry Smith, but it goes without saying the Clutter family itself is just grist for the mill in Capote. It is a deeply exploitative film.

  3. This is a really trite film. Perry killed four people on a humbug but he comes off as the better man. Why do biopics never show a nuanced view? It's either hero-worship or character assassination. I rented Crying Fist on your recommendation. Good film but not as good/different from Arahan. Any thoughts on the Scorsese remake of IA?