Capote is a film that literally hangs on the performance of its star, so it’s a good thing that Philip Seymour Hoffman completely vanishes into the role of author Truman Capote. Without Hoffman’s presence, I’m afraid that this film wouldn’t hold together. It certainly wouldn’t have held my attention.
That’s not to say that Capote is in any way poorly executed, but the film, like its subject, stands off from the rest of the world and observes it from a distance. Without a strong presence at the center of the story, there isn’t enough around him to keep anyone else interested, despite some notable actors giving very strong performances. The supporting characters seem to fade into the background as the entire film seems to exist within a bubble around the person of Truman Capote.
Hoffman’s Capote is a memorable if not entirely sympathetic character. Completely self-involved, the man is a masterful, almost instinctive manipulator. One gets the feeling that, while he probably cares for the the people around him, he can’t help using them to get what he wants.
As you probably know by now, the film centers around the six years covering the writing of Capote’s In Cold Blood, his “non-fiction novel” about the murder of Kansas farm family, showing the author’s increasing obsession with writing what he correctly believed would be his masterpiece, as well as his obsession with one of the subjects of his book.
Capote travels to Holcomb, KS, with his lifelong friend Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), author of To Kill a Mockingbird, with ideas of writing an article for The New Yorker. The flamboyantly effete writer initial meets considerable resistance from the Kansas farm community, until he successfully charms the district attorney, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), and his family with stories of rubbing elbows with the social elite. As Capote is drawn into the story around crime, the article quickly expands into a book.
After the killers are caught, Capote charms his way into access to the two suspects, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.). While Hickock is an almost stereotypical petty crook, Capote finds Smith to be unusually literate and sensitive, a sharp contract with the depravity of the murders. The author begins working to gain the trust of the two men. Dick Hickock talks readily but he’s a crude and unsophisticated career criminal, while Perry Smith is reticent but hides an intriguing degree of intelligence and curiosity for an unschooled man from the farm belt with a long criminal history.
The film seems to shrink down to a two-handed play set in Perry Smith’s jail cell as Truman Capote’s slowly seduces the killer into revealing more and more about himself. It’s at this point that Capote’s darker and more empathetic side come into sharp focus. The author labors tirelessly to keep Perry Smith from the hangman’s noose for as long as he needs the man alive to provide material for the book, but he eventually reaches the point where he’s thoroughly burned out and desperately needing an ending for the book, an ending that he believes can only come with Dick Hickock and Perry Smith finally going to the gallows for their crimes. The conflict between his unconsumated love for Smith and the need for him to die in order to finish the book is held up as what helps drives Capote to alcoholism and alienation from his friends.
What makes Hoffman’s performance really remarkable is that he takes on a mostly internal journey with a character who is often petty and unlikeable and holds our attention in an iron grip.