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Film Review ****: A Narcissist Meets a Killer

Through a Looking Glass of Prison Bars, ‘Capote’ Faces Himself Gone Wrong

By Beckett W. Sterner


Directed by Bennett Miller

Screenplay by Dan Futterman

Based on the book by Gerald Clarke

Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Clifton Collins Jr.

United Artists and Sony Picture Classics

Rated R

For a movie about a brutal murder, “Capote” pursues its subject, the relationship between a writer and a killer, in an eerily peaceful mood. Like the lonely house on the stark Kansan plains where the murder happened, Truman Capote, a writer for The New Yorker, and Perry Smith, a convicted murderer on death row, are emotionally distant, though they yearn for a connection. In what is unquestionably one of the best films this year, we watch Capote struggle between his self-interested, manipulative goals as a writer and his honest love of a cold-blooded killer.

Built from static, unflinching directing by Bennett Miller (“The Cruise,” 1998), “Capote” achieves an ambience of intense emotion, forcing the audience into deeply unsettling introspection through their empathy for both Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.).

The movie is based on a book by Gerald Clarke, which is itself taken from real life: Capote ultimately wrote about his encounter with Smith in his book “In Cold Blood,” famous for being the first non-fiction novel. Capote had set out from his home in New York to humanize Smith by trying to understand how a person could commit such a terrible act, but he never sought to make excuses for what Smith did. The movie achieves a similar tension of understanding without acceptance in how we feel about the characters.

The movie begins its story at the Clutters’ house in rural Holcomb, Kansas, as a young girl (Allie Mickelson) stops by to pick up her friend in the morning. What she finds is that the entire family of four, including her friend, had been murdered the night before, the father with his throat slit and the others tied-up and shot point blank with a shotgun. Capote hears of the tragedy when the story is picked up by The New York Times, and immediately calls his editor at The New Yorker to say that this is the story he wants to write and that he wants to leave for Kansas the next day.

When the killers, Smith and Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), are caught in Las Vegas and brought back to Humbold, though, Capote discovers something unexpected: he and Smith are almost two sides of the same coin, having the same background but terribly different lives. Capote reflects at one point, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house, and one day he stood up and went out the back door and I went out the front.” We see Capote, a witty socialite adept at manipulating others, willingly shoulder the torturous burden of being the only friend of a man sentenced to die.

Just as we wish we could redeem Smith after Capote has humanized him, so we want to know that Capote is a true friend to Smith, and is not simply using him to write a groundbreaking book. Perhaps the deepest parallel between Smith and Capote is this ambiguity of character: Two men, born in the South, abused and abandoned by their families, and possessing keen minds, travel such different paths in life, and yet we cannot wholly embrace or condemn either.

With an excellent script and directing job, and an Oscar-worthy performance by Hoffman, “Capote” succeeds in walking the fine line of coherence and complexity along which art brings meaning to reality. Hoffman does a flawless job of acting Capote’s character, capturing the nuance of a man deeply torn between an allegiance to himself and to his alter ego. For once, the movie is at least as good as the books.