I Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s seminal nonfiction novel about a quadruple murder in 1959 Kansas, is one of those rare cultural touchstones that acquires new meanings as it rolls through time. When its blend of lurid pulp-novel storytelling and sharp eyewitness reporting was published, it was shocking; when it sold like hotcakes, it inspired legions of imitators that eventually gave birth to the true-crime genre. Nowadays, when a woman drowning her three children in the San Francisco Bay isn’t even the lead story on newscasts, In Cold Blood’s once-scandalous words'even the title itself'are quaint reminders of a landmark moment in journalism and entertainment, when there was still a way to be shocked.
Capote, director Bennett Miller’s canny debut feature examining the book’s creation, casts an unflinching eye on its own subject: The mannered, pinched author and his decision to do anything necessary to get widespread acclaim, fame and money. You’ve probably already heard about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Truman, which becomes much more than a clever impersonation during this well-paced, perfectly detailed film. Hoffman tells the entire story, turning the author from the fey Manhattan wit of the first few frames to the pragmatic, nearly heartless opportunist who famously manipulated the two thick hoods who killed the Clutter family for a $50 score.
With friendship and flirtation, he cozies up to Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), one of the killers. With his friend, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), providing sidekick morality checks, Capote both steals the men’s story and turns it into something greater than their tawdry crime. His book, with its sympathetic, humanistic portraits of the killers, helped start the American debate on the morality of capital punishment. But the film’s greatest satisfaction comes from watching Capote’s machinations and his cool comfort in doing anything necessary to get where he’s going. In Hoffman’s hands, the little author is journalism’s Tom Ripley'and the movie is much more pure fun than you’d ever expect.
Though Miller owes much of his success to Hoffman’s magnetism in a very chewy role, it’s still an impressive effort from a guy whose only previous film was a documentary seven years ago. Miller nails the mood, look and feel of this stretch of time with what seems like pure authenticity to those of us who weren’t there. The Kansas scenes are pitch-perfect from the gray skies to the stark barns, while the Manhattan portions reek of gin and steaks and heavy wool coats. Few films care as much about atmosphere as Capote, and that focus is a keen match for Hoffman’s obsessive work.
Screenwriter Dan Futterman (who is one of those veteran actors that you know but don’t know) also shows a remarkable ear, but in a different way. He confines the action to the period between 1959 and 1966, resisting the urge to make one of those tediously rote biopics like last year’s absurdly overpraised Kinsey, which get their dramatic peaks from a calendar, not a life. His screenplay is professional, smart and a bit cold'just like its subject.
This film can’t compete with the dramatics of In Cold Blood, nor should it. There’s a dispassionate arm’s-length to much of the picture’s proceedings, and it’s an excellent way to emphasize the dissonant horror of these murders. We’re so far past the point in cinema and media where a death is as soul-stirringly awful as in real life that it has become morbidly refreshing to see murder treated with the shock and awe it deserves.
Capote never wrote anything nearly as nationally important as the book he lied and schemed to get; after such success at such a price, Capote eventually became an addict and an alcoholic. With the exception of a title card at the end, the film covers none of this. It’s about a certain time and a specific place and all the horribly beautiful drama within.