Less than a week ago I mentioned how traditional 'epic' biopics are less interesting to me than ones that focus on certain key events in a person's life. And now, along comes Capote, a biographical film that covers the period in writer Truman Capote's life when he wrote his magnum opus, the non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. While the film tells a conventional narrative it is very character driven and focuses mostly on the man within the context of the events that occur.
Capote takes place across several years, from 1959 through to the mid 60s. It begins with a girl finding a family (the Clutters) murdered in their farmhouse in a small town in Kansas. It then cuts to New York and the high society world of Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whom we see regaling his audience with his witty conversational skills and clearly loving the attention. Later, Capote reads a brief article in the paper about the killing of the Clutter family, and he immediately decides he wants to do an article about it. He heads off to Kansas with his friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), and they begin investigating the murder, going from house to house and coming across a bit like Mulder and Scully. Capote isn't interested in who committed the crime, rather he's interested in the impact the killings have had on the town. He manages to befriend the detective in charge of the case, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), and plies him for information. Two men are arrested for the crime, and Capote becomes fascinated by one of them - Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), a man of surprising intelligence and artistic talent.
The rest of the film follows Capote's obsession with his work, which he decides to turn into a full blown novel. He has little doubt that it will be a masterpiece, a new type of novel that he bills the 'nonfiction novel'. In order to write it, he needs to get the inside story from Smith regarding his life and the murders. He does this by arranging for lawyers to continuously appeal the men's guilty verdict so that he can arrange for meetings with Smith in prison. Capote ingratiates himself with Smith, but soon develops a genuine affection for him and sees Smith as a spiritual sibling of sorts because of similarities in their childhood. Despite this, he still manipulates and lies to Smith to get what he needs for the book, and is ultimately faced with a dilemma - if Smith and his accomplice are not executed for their crimes, his book won't have the ending it needs.
Capote is a fascinating film, enough to make me eager to read 'In Cold Blood', as a matter of fact. There's a nice balance between story and character development, with the latter incorporated into the former in such a way that the characters become familiar without any major digressions. The focus is of course on Capote, who is arrogant and ambitious; this coupled with the fact that he's openly gay, of small stature, and effeminate makes for interesting interactions with the people he comes across. His relationship with Harper Lee is a major aspect of the film, and the two have that air of familiarity and comfort about them that you see in close friends. The first half of the film establishes who Capote is; once he meets Smith, the film delves deeper into his character and his past, as his artistic ambition wrestles for dominance with his newfound friendship. This conflict is the major focus of the film, as Capote exploits Smith, but not without compunction. The script also dwells on Smith and humanizes him, which makes Capote's choices more difficult and his eventual actions more despicable.
The film is fantastic as a character piece, but it is a bit slow paced, and despite not being overly long becomes a bit repetitive. There are several scenes with Capote and Lee questioning townspeople, several scenes with Capote at social gatherings, and many with him speaking with Perry Smith. While these scenes do build on and develop the character and narrative, they are... well, repetitive. There's not much interesting visually, though the bleak photography and barren landscapes figure prominently and effectively establish a quite dour atmosphere (appropriate, given the subject matter).
The most talked about aspect of this film is Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance as Capote, and justifiably so. Capote is what the film is about, and Hoffman manages to overcome the inherently 'showy' nature of the role - the conspicuous demeanour and distinctive voice - and make the character complex and compelling. Despite being an arrogant ass and a bit of a bastard, it's hard not to empathize with Capote in the end, and that's largely thanks to Hoffman's brilliant performance. Clifton Collins Jr. also does an excellent job making Smith sympathetic and even likable while still seeming dangerous and capable of bloody violence. Catherine Keener, who only features prominently in the first half of the film, is great as the self-assured and dignified Harper Lee. The interactions between these three actors are terrific and add considerably to the film, which is a huge plus given that said interactions comprise a significant portion of the running time. Chris Cooper also makes a solid appearance, as does Bruce Greenwood as Capote's lover (though it's never made explicit).
In conclusion, Capote's a very good film that features excellent performances and an engaging storyline, but which suffers from being a bit slow paced and which could maybe do with a bit more humour (what little there is, is quite funny). As a result it's probably not the most re-watchable film, but it's well worth watching at least once, and is quite memorable - it definitely stuck in my mind.