A few years ago I came across a copy of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at a garage sale and decided to pick it up. I think this was sometime after the 2005 release of the film Capote which chronicles the writer’s experience while writing about the murder of a Kansas family by a pair of would-be burglars. The book was a moving, chilling account that not only got into the minds of a pair of killers and explained how and why they committed such a crime, but also humanized them in a way that can be very offputting. We don’t like thinking of our villains as people with real problems, we just want them to be one note movie baddies twirling their moustaches while tying defenseless barmaids to the train tracks, but that’s not usually how these things work out.
The other night I was looking around for something to watch on Netflix and found myself just about to push play on the John Candy comedy Summer Rental when I clicked over a few pages and saw Capote. I felt like a comedy, but something drew me to this film. Since I already knew the gist of the story, I figured I could handle the grislier aspects of the film and I’m glad I did because this is an incredibly well put together film.
Director Bennett Miller really did something amazing here. Without being too in your face about it, he clearly had some very specific ways he wanted to show the audience this film. He’s got a lot of scenes that start with long shots of landscape. Sometimes this feels like pointless padding, but in this case, I found the cold Kansas landscapes to not only help in nailing down the physical setting of the film, but also the emotional one. Capote goes from looking at all this as just another story to write about for the newspaper, but winds up getting absorbed not only by the townspeople who live with the crime against their own, but the men who committed the crime itself.
I was also impressed with how he waited to get to the actual crime. It follows the reality of Capote’s interaction with the criminals Perry Smith and Dick Hickock (mostly Smith) who didn’t actually recount the events of the break-in and murders until much closer to the end of the movie. This makes for an interesting companion piece to the book which gets into that right away followed by the criminals’ experience after the crime until they were caught and tried several times. Clearly Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman who was working based on Gerald Clarke’s book were making an effort to tell the story of Capote’s experience with these people and not the story already told in the true crime novel.
Of course, you can’t talk about Capote without talking about Philip Seymour Hoffman who really seemed to just dive full form into the role. I don’t actually know what Capote sounded or even really looked like, but you get the sense that Hoffman’s doing the character justice. He’s a broken man who wields truth and lies like weapons when he deems them appropriate. He enjoys his raconteurish lifestyle, but he’s also clearly been changed by having Smith in his life. He eventually got deep into drugs and alcohol and never finished another book which makes me wonder how much Perry’s death had to do with it. Capote himself explains a theory held by some, including his live-in boyfriend, that Capote actually fell in love with Smith during their talks. It’s an interesting take on things that I hadn’t picked up on from reading the book, there’s also enough there on screen from both actors to support it if you want to go down that road. Hell, the casting was so good all around in this movie. Chris Cooper as the small town sheriff, Catherine Keener as Capote’s take-no-BS friend and fellow writer Nelle Harper Lee, Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith, Mark Pellegrino as Dick. Everyone brought their A-games and seemed to lose themselves in their characters that I must admit that I half expected Cooper to break out into the Tex Richman rap from The Muppets.
As you can tell, I really enjoyed this look into a life, especially a writer’s life. It really felt like Miller not only understood the characters and their motivations, but also the best possible way to convey those things to the reader. Top notch stuff.