Sunday, November 06, 2005

Cold-blooded "Capote" looks evil in the eye


directed by Bennett Miller
screenplay by Dan Futterman, based on book by Gerald Clarke
starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins, Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood

“Capote,” at its core, is the tale of a writer who makes a deal with the devil. In exchange for a work that will eclipse all his prior efforts and ensure his reputation for all posterity, the writer parts with his immortal soul. But it doesn't disappear with a flash and a bang. Rather, it’s drained from him, bit by bit, with the slow inexorability reserved for the damned.

Showing this type of gradual dissolution requires serious dramatic muscle, and it's no wonder the movie focuses on the front-and-center performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote. It’s an extraordinary performance. For anyone new to Capote, or (like me) acquainted with his writing but not his life, Hoffman’s posturing, his mannerisms, his outsized effeminacy and self-aggrandizement, may come as something of a shock—clearly the intended effect.

Capote isn't the only famous writer whose outward persona differed markedly from the voice contained in his work. But if “Capote” is any indicator, the dissonance in his case was especially sharp. The narrative voice of In Cold Blood, that seminal account of a quadruple homicide in a small Kansas town, is neutral and dispassionate, yet deceptively so—it’s reporting made memorable not by the history it details but by its haunting lyricism, a poetry of starkness that echoes and subtly comments on the mysterious, implacable nature of the murder, its setting, and its consequences. “Capote,” on the other hand, is a kind of photographic negative of In Cold Blood. As a portrait of the writer behind the account, it shows a man at once deeply, painfully invested in his investigation and inhumanly detached from it; a man who saw it all through the prism of his own chance at literary greatness and thereby lost himself in a bottomless abyss.

I personally came out of “Capote” thoroughly disliking its main subject—but perhaps that, too, was the intended effect. Drawn largely from the widely praised biography by Gerald Clarke, the film traces the genesis of In Cold Blood and the toll it took on its author. The story starts off innocuously enough: it’s 1959, and Capote, author of Other Voices, Other Rooms and Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the toast of the town, but still hasn’t, in his own estimation, fulfilled the full promise of his talents. (Of his genius, if you were to ask him.) Upon hearing of the massacre of the Clutter family, his journalistic instincts perk up, and he persuades William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, to let him write about the murders. Realizing that his own fey gayness, or gay feyness, is bound to meet a cooler reception in the plains of Kansas than in the clubs of New York, Capote recruits his childhood friend, Miss Nell Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) in her pre-To Kill a Mockingbird days, to accompany him.

Aided by the chief police investigator in the case, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), as well as Dewey’s wife and others dazzled by his celebrity, Capote gains access to the corpses, forensic evidence, and accounts of the locals who knew the Clutters. Later, when the two perpetrators—small-time grifters with no comprehensible motives for the slaughter other than petty robbery—are arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death by hanging, Capote bribes his way to unlimited visitors’ access, obtains them new counsel, and builds a strangely intimate, almost codependent relationship with one of them, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.). His vampiric persistence pays off: the prospective article turns into a book, and a brilliant book at that. But it also exacts a stiff price: in posing as a friend to Perry and his partner in crime, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), and affording them real legal assistance, Capote allows them to delay their execution for years. What’s really terrible about the delay, from Capote’s point of view, is that it prevents him from finishing his book. For the truth is, of course, that only execution will provide satisfactory closure to both the book and this episode in his life. And so, with the coldest of calculation, he abandons the doomed pair—but again, at a price. Worrying that they’ll get off, and haunted by reproachful letters from Perry, he degenerates into a near-catatonic state from which he never recovers: In Cold Blood was Capote’s last work. He never wrote another.

The crack-up was real, of course, and Hoffman plays it to the bone. In the end, though, I just couldn’t feel much, if any, empathy for someone who spells his own fate by using every person he encounters—Lee, Dewey, Perry, even Capote’s patiently forbearing lover, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood)—and tossing them aside when he doesn’t need them. Hoffman conveys much of Capote’s character convincingly—his preening narcissism, his remarkable tenacity, and his serpentine powers of manipulation. What he never quite sold me on was Capote’s charm—the charm that courted and won new friends while keeping the old ones around. Instead, his Capote comes across as a leech and a whiner. Admittedly, the film is not designed to show him at his best; still, when Capote, waiting indefinitely for the executions to go forward, frets that he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, all I felt was a strong desire to slap him and tell him to get over himself. Luckily, someone does tell him to cut the crap. In response to Capote’s self-serving plaint that there was nothing he could have done to prevent the executions, Harper Lee says evenly, “Maybe. But the fact is you didn’t want to.”

Keener, Greenwood, and Cooper are all quite good as reality checkpoints to Capote-world. But the real standout is Collins as Perry, the man who unwittingly tears Capote-world to pieces. “Jack thinks I’m using Perry,” Capote observes at one point. “He also thinks I fell in love with him in Kansas.” How Jack can think both of those things at once, Capote mumbles pettishly, is beyond him. Jack, however, is right on both counts. As Capote himself recognizes and admits, Perry is his doppelgänger—a withdrawn, sensitive outsider, neglected as a child, possessing an artistic streak and a tendency to self-dramatization born of an inflated sense of his own importance. Even as Capote lies to Perry and manipulates him for the sole purpose of gaining his confidence, the predator finds himself increasingly entangled in his prey’s peculiar blend of expectations, delusions, and suspicions. At the same time, it’s never entirely clear to what extent Perry, for his part, is consciously or unconsciously jerking Capote’s strings. Collins plays Perry for most of the movie as a brooding, intense-eyed naif, but periodically reveals glimpses of darkness so black they make Capote look like an ineffectual and inconsequential fly on the wall. Small wonder that the latter melts into nothingness with their final encounter. “Capote,” like In Cold Blood, is a chilling meditation on the fundamental opacity and, in the words of Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil. But it is also an equally chilling tragedy of hubris—a portrait of an egotist so monstrous that his punishment is to lose his sense of self.



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