Director: Bennett Miller
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener
“All I want to do is write the ending and there is no ending in sight.”
Based on true life events, Capote is a quiet-toned film about the 1960s period when writer Truman Capote covered the famous Clutter family murder case in Kansas. Capote (Hoffman) with the help of Nell Harper Lee (Keener) thoroughly and doggedly researches the case that led to his best-seller masterpiece In Cold Blood. Although Capote clearly exploits and repeatedly lies to his main storyline character–the murderer Perry Smith, he finds that he cannot remain detached from the horror of the killings and the trust that his killer-source has placed in him as a ‘friend’. In a strange, parallel fashion, the movie suggests that Capote’s life also ends with the execution of Smith.
Capote is a classic about how things often turn out differently from what one expects. There is much talk early in the film about true to what one is and the importance of honesty in one’s writing and life. As much as Capote takes James Baldwin to task about that author’s work, Capote himself is later challenged by Lee and Jack, his writing partner, about his motives and responsibility to Smith who blindly and naively trusts him.
Capote’s involvement in the Clutter case is a fascinating oddity, beginning with casually reading a newspaper account of it and spontaneously deciding to cover it. Likewise, his reactions to examining graphic photos of the dead and stealing a look into a Clutter coffin are chillingly impersonal: “I found something so horrifying, it’s a relief.” There is, too, a superiority and snobbery in comments such as “he’s given me absolutely everything” and “he’s a gold mine” following his first interviews with Smith. For Capote, the case is just a means to an end–the making of his own personal reputation and commercial success, “When I think of how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe.”
On the other hand, like Capote’s friends and publisher, the viewer sees that Perry Smith deserves far better than the egotistical writer is not giving in return. Smith himself is a pathetic figure downing large quantities of aspirin, is a product of a miserable childhood, is someone who has already been abused and exploited many times before he befriends Capote. Despite his irrational violent crimes, the audience can sympathize with him; unlike his confidant, he is at least capable of shame.
Capote toys with Smith, lying about how much he cares for Perry, his book’s title, how much he has actually written, Smith’s sister’s feelings, and how he is trying to save the killers from death row. But it is only later, as he wishes for Smith to die, that it becomes apparent that the case, Smith, and Capote’s betrayal of Smith have all gotten to the writer. Cracks begin to appear—friends refuse to let Capote off easily and the writer begins a long road to alcoholism.
In the end, the film becomes a study not just about the betrayal of others, but the betrayal of one’s self, and the realization of moral responsibility in one’s work and relationships. Is Capote his ‘friend’s’ keeper? The epiphany is a painful one because of the honesty required to admit to one’s selfish motives. When Capote says “I did everything I could”, Lee answers with a truth far exceeding the professed objective truth of Capote’s nonfiction novel, “the fact is you didn’t want to.” Intimacy always implies responsibility and there is a terrible price to be paid for dishonesty to and betrayal of others as well as one’s self.
When I worked as a film classifier for the province off and on from 2001 to 2006, about 90% of the movies we/I screened were not worth the time, energy, or eyestrain. Less than 5% of the films I saw were well-made and had no false steps; e.g., A Very Long Engagement. Capote is an example of a smaller, but thoughtful well-made movie that we saw very rarely.