Dir. Bennett Miller. 2005. R. 98mins. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr.
All apologies to Richard Brooks's fine (if slightly syrupy) 1967 film version, but the full achievement of Truman Capote's landmark 1966 novel, In Cold Blood, will never make it to the screen—nor should it. The essence of the book is a private invitation, coaxing the reader into queasy proximity with the lives and horrible deaths of a Kansan farming family and their killers, who themselves were hung by the state. That these events, presented as fiction, happened to be true is part of the thrill of the reading experience; you dive into the book like a spy, almost disrespectfully, and end up overwhelmed by Capote's empathy and creative audacity. Here, for good and ill, was the invention of true-crime and vanity journalism alike.
Capote, the smart new film from 38-year-old director Bennett Miller, is not In Cold Blood, nor, wisely, a straight birth-to-death biopic. (It focuses on the writer's years spent researching and toiling on the book that would both make him and paralyze him for the rest of his career.) What the film does do, with rare intellectual rigor, is arrive at solutions to the problem of adapting In Cold Blood—indeed, to the problem of adapting Capote himself. Few writers—even the manly, toreador-obsessed ones—led lives that would inspire satisfying narratives, and Capote is no exception. Famously effete (he became a well-known self-caricature within his own lifetime), the author, with his Hollywood friends and protoGawker lifestyle, suggests a slim but colorful turn on the periphery of a movie, swirling around the heavier gravity of a Marilyn or Bogey.
Daringly then, it's exactly that sensibility—catty, gifted and maddeningly fickle—that's been pushed to the fore; the result is a riveting, cryptic movie, dense with details collected by scripter Dan Futterman but fleshed out to a rare degree of slipperiness by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the year's strangest, most accomplished performance. He's not only made Capote's high-pitched twitter and mannerisms his own, but burrowed deeply into unnerving shades of the writer's narcissism and out-and-out selfishness, all the while presenting an actual human being with softer sides. Wafting into the Holcomb, Kansas, police station, a floppy scarf flung over his shoulders ("Bergdorf's," he serenely tells one of his stunned onlookers), Hoffman begins the film in something close to a comic vein, hitting notes that may remind you of Kyle MacLachlan's FBI agent from Twin Peaks, another stranger in a strange land.
Soon enough, though, Capote is insinuating himself into the locals' lives with the help of fellow novelist Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), a crucial collaborator thanks to her ability to approach important sources without sending them off in a panicky run. Again, much of this plays extremely slyly; had composer Mychael Danna not been called upon to provide the standard "serious" piano score—a major weakness—Capote would reach its tricky, confident tone much sooner than it does. Still, it gets there, developing along the course of the author's unexpected attachment to his subject matter, particularly handsome killer Perry Smith (the excellent Clifton Collins Jr.), and, amazingly for a mainstream film, the idea of a writer's egocentric thrill at his own brilliance: "Sometimes when I think how good my novel can be," he solemnly tells New Yorker editor William Shawn (Bob Balaban), "I can't breathe."
This inward spiraling, ingeniously conveyed by Hoffman as his loquaciousness dries up and the court case stretches on for months, may be the most audacious stroke of the film—or of any film this season. While the author's homosexuality is not avoided (longtime lover Jack Dunphy makes some appearances, and there are underplayed sparks in the jail cell), the love affair is primarily Capote's for Capote. "They're torturing me," he says in a drunken haze, all but wishing for his subjects' deaths, denying his own heart, unable to enjoy Lee's success with To Kill a Mockingbird and unable to finish his book. It's a supremely dark moment to come just before an even darker climax; to Capote's credit, both are completely earned and utterly harrowing.
Capote opens Friday 30.