In 1959, at the beginning of this film, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote announces that ‘I find autobiographical stories at this juncture in my life to be quite boring’. Accordingly, the darling of the Manhattan cocktail set embarks on an ambitious project which would, as he hoped, change the way writers wrote: the ‘non-fiction novel’, a form of extended reportage which presented the stuff of life with the colour and emotion of fantasy. The material Capote chose was the murder in rural Kansas of the Clutter family, by drifters Perry Smith and Richard Hickock (Clifton Collins Jr and Mark Pellegrino); the resulting book, ‘In Cold Blood’, was his greatest and last completed achievement. Its authorial voice scrupulously avoids overt opinionating, but the triumph of director Miller, writer Dan Futterman and particularly Hoffman – who gives one of the best performances of the decade – is to suggest that the case is most fruitfully read in the context of Capote’s own life, and as an ultimately self-damning exercise of ego.
The movie’s early stages come across as a fish-out-of-water comedy – an odd fish and dark comedy located in a buttoned-up small town more accustomed to ‘the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat’ than the nasal whine and twitchily pursed lips of Hoffman’s fruitily spot-on Gothamite. We chuckle as he wins over the rubes – notably lead investigator Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) – with celebrity anecdotes and his own childhood recollections; then realise the canny calculation behind the bartering of his autobiographical stories for gobbets of information, which he hoards and savours with vampiric relish.
On first spotting the killings in the paper, he sets about with scissors as if a tailor with shears, shaping his material to his ends; by the time he meets and courts the killers the attribution of cold-bloodedness is more than a little murky. Truman and Perry’s relationship is something like love –intimate, attentive, even co-dependent – but clouded by using; at one point the writer spoon-feeds the killer baby food, at another calls him as ‘a goldmine’.
Capote’s obscene selfishness edges into literal gallows humour: desperate for the executions that will allow him to finish his book, he sincerely describes his own experience as ‘harrowing’; awaiting yet another appeal decision he sighs, ‘I’ll pray it goes my way’ – which is to say not Smith and Hickock’s. Yet Hoffman retains our sympathy through unlikability. It took barely six weeks to catch the pair and six years for them to hang, during which time Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) – Capote’s childhood friend, research assistant and, at least here, would-be conscience – saw ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ written, published, garlanded and filmed; even as you marvel at Truman’s narcissism it’s no great struggle to feel his distress, see his grip on the ever-present tumbler of booze tighten.
The killer irony is that when the consummation Capote has so devoutly wished for finally comes to pass, it shatters him. Having rushed to embrace a story of death in the pursuit of glory, he finds in the real thing an unspeakable horror, yet cannot himself change in response. His verdict on the sight – ‘I will never get over it’ – is another testament to the egotism that brought him to it.