So far, I haven’t seen Capote appear on many of 2005’s top ten lists, but the film is certainly worth seeing, even during this rare season of good movies. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance masterfully brings back to life Truman Capote, as famous for his writing as he was for his bizarre manner of speaking. In keeping with Hoffman’s faithful depiction, the movie presents both the good and the less admirable aspects of Capote. Rather than make a hero of him, screenwriter Dan Futterman depicts his main character’s self-destruction.
As a biopic, Capote achieves a clearness of vision and depth of characterization that films like Ray and Walk the Line fail to realize. Unlike the latter movies, Capote does not attempt to depict the entirety of its main character’s life. Rather, the film selects a specific focus for its inquiry: Capote’s investigation into the murder of a Kansas family and his friendship/manipulation of one of the accused murderers.
Maintaining this steady attention upon one episode of Capote’s life, the screenplay nevertheless offers insight into Capote’s friendship with childhood companion (and famous author in her own right) Harper Lee (played by the always impressive Catherine Keener) and his long-term partnership with lover Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood). Throughout the film, director Bennett Miller develops his characters and the plotline by continually examining how Capote’s investigation affects his job, his relationships, and his sense of self. As a result, the film achieves a nuanced and layered portrait of a historical figure without sacrificing its specificity.
Capote juxtaposes the main characters’ downfall with the rising star of his friend Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. She plays a typically feminine role: Capote’s conscience. Lee humors her friend’s arrogance, warns him to better appreciate his faithful partner, and forces him to accept his responsibility to convicted murderer Perry Smith. Portrayed with simplicity and subtlety by Keener, Lee is a gentle nag who appreciates all that is good in Capote even while she recognizes his many weaknesses. In many ways, she acts as the mother he never had.
Though most every schoolchild probably reads Lee’s one and only novel at some point during grade school, her name proves so androgynous that I wonder how many children would associate her name with the character in the film. I think of this because the film presents Lee’s success in such a coy manner, with her novel always referenced in passing or in the background. Is Futterman taking her fame for granted or consciously minimizing her own story to highlight Capote’s?
Of course, the film is called "Capote," not "Lee," so Miller’s continual relegation of Lee to the sidelines should not surprise or offend. Yet with such a remarkable actress in the role, I cannot help but wish Futterman had better filled out her character. Why does Lee continue her friendship with such a selfish man? When he hurts her, why does she return? When he shames her, why does she continue to fight for him? One can only assume she receives something in exchange for her trouble (or else is simply a saint), but the film does not answer these questions. We know what role Lee played in Capote’s salvation, but the reverse remains unclear.
To complete his non-fiction book, In Cold Blood, Capote connives, contrives, and confides to gather his information. Yet he does not come out on the other side unscathed. As presented in the film, Capote’s ruthless pursuit of the truth strips away his humanity and leaves him a broken man. With fine performances, carefully controlled direction, and a tight screenplay, Capote offers some of the most devastating cinema of 2005.