CapoteReviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 09/05/06 01:49:43
Thereís something particularly disappointing about biographies that never get into their charactersí heads. I can understand why this happens Ė if a person was too guarded such that itís hard to know, yet lived recently enough that too many people would cry foul if you guessed Ė but itís still an issue. Bennett Millerís Capote has exactly this problem, if not worse; most of the film is focused around its subjectís thoughts and feelings, but it doesnít seem to know what either of those are.Covering the time period in Truman Capoteís life during which he researched and wrote In Cold Blood, Capote purports to focus on the relationship between Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the two men on trial for the murders about which he was writing, in particular Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). It takes a good deal of time for Smith to enter the picture, however, so we can only assume that the film intends to focus on Capote himself as well. The picture isnít particularly flattering. Capote comes off like a vain, self-centered man who canít stand not being the center of attention in a particular room. However well this behavior played in the New York social clubs, it is quickly established as being out of place in rural Kansas, where Capote and Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) interview the locals about the murder of the Clutter family.
Capote begins to take an interest in the killers, particularly Smith. The other killer, Richard Hickock, seems much more willing to talk, but Capote seems drawn to Smith, nursing him back to health after Smith stops eating and spending large amounts of time with him. It becomes more and more obvious, however, that Capote is using Smith for his own ends; he lies to Smith about the title of the book and eventually says he will stop visiting unless Smith gives an account of what happened on the day of the murders.
This all seems very obvious in the world of the film, but Capoteís true motives seem a bit shrouded. Lee suggests that Capote has perhaps fallen in love with Smith; itís a charge Capote shrugs off, though he does so more than a bit unconvincingly. Certainly itís not hard to see where this angle would have come from either; the scene in which Capote spoon-feeds Smith has a creepy sort of eroticism to it, and he does spend plenty of time with the killer. But Capote is never particularly honest with Smith, and when he retires to Spain to start writing the book, he ignores his supposed friend almost entirely.
So which Capote is the real Capote? Miller presents evidence for both sides, with the evidence for the idea that Capote was just using Smith seeming to pile much higher. If that was really the case, however, why does Capote seem so personally affected at times?
The right answer is probably that Capote was intentionally trying not to care about his subjects. Most of his aims were already selfish, but when he found himself being drawn in he consciously pushed away, putting Smith at armís length and withdrawing to New York and Spain. If this is true, however, the film doesnít do a great job of showing it. Capote doesnít seem particularly in control of his own feelings, and he seems to push Smith away simply because he isnít getting the answers he wants. Itís not clear from the film that Capote ever really cared about his subjects, or perhaps didnít realize he did. At filmís end it seems clear enough that he did care, at least a little bit, but what this means as regards the preceding two hours is anyoneís guess.
Hoffman does a fine job, although his performance seems somewhat like the one which won the Oscar the year before him, Jamie Foxx in Ray Ė it seems to be predicated much more on doing an impression than on anything else. There is nothing wrong with Hoffmanís performance really, but it doesnít seem superlative. It doesnít help that he isnít given an especially rich character. The filmís version of Capote, whether true to real life or not, just isnít that complex. Heís a social animal and a manipulator, but we only see that he actually has feelings in very short bursts. If anything, Miller cuts off too soon after the execution of Smith and Hickock, the one scene in the film which actually seems to humanize its subject. Other than that, Capote just seems slick and selfish and certainly not anyone worth caring about.
The film itself is put together well, but it doesnít have enough to buffer its title characterís unpleasantness. The actors are all fine and Millerís direction is capable, and itís never hard to watch Ė but how much is that saying, really? Capote is about exactly what it says itís about, and therein lies the problem.Its basic premise Ė author has a questionable relationship with his notorious subject Ė sounds compelling, but Capote undercuts its own intentions by not being able to paint a convincing picture of the relationship it aims to depict. Its main character is unlikable enough in his own way that the difficulty the film has in humanizing him only makes things worse. Getting inside the head of your subject becomes more vital when the exterior is so unpleasant, and Capote just canít find its way past the surface.
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