Capote Review

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Truman Capote isn’t just uncanny, it’s almost supernatural. It’s not merely an impersonation, it’s an embodiment which seems to link the souls of the real man and the actor in a way which goes beyond anything that could reasonably be expected. This isn’t a unique occurrence but it’s very rare to see it placed right at the centre of a movie and Hoffman’s achievement is on a par with that of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. He has a difficult task because Capote, in real life, was witty and immensely charismatic but brittle and deeply unsympathetic. Indeed, he courted the reputation of being a gentleman-bitch and would have been deeply disappointed to have been considered otherwise. When people talk about him, it’s with a certain degree of nostalgic affection but rarely any love. Hoffman doesn’t turn Capote into a darling and we never particularly like him but he captures the sheer electricity of the man. Capote isn’t a biography of the man but a study of his work on the ‘non-fiction novel’ “In Cold Blood” which told the true story of the murder of four members of the Clutter family by two itinerants Richard Hickcok (Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Collins Jr).

Hoffman isn’t quite the whole show here – the performance of the reliably excellent Catherine Keener as Harper Lee is admirably restrained – but he is the main reason to watch a movie which is otherwise strangely distanced and lacking in narrative tension. As a piece of filmmaking it has considerable skill and first time director Bennett Miller has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in terms of technical competence. It has a very distinctive look which is richly evocative of the rural settings and while the pacing is a problem in terms of dramatic momentum, it does allow the atmosphere of the locations to seep through. But the film lacks flamboyance and style, things which Capote himself possessed in abundance, and as such it doesn’t quite serve its subject. Capote deserves the works but what he gets is dedicated plodding. Miller says that the effect of the style is meant to be sensitising in order to heighten awareness but I don’t think he’s right because the effect is more lulling than stimulating. It’s not unlike one of Francois Truffaut’s films such as Les Deux Anglaises where we end up with a tone of gentle sadness which can’t quite rouse us to caring a great deal. Without Hoffman, the film would lack any real fire. Luckily, it has him and he provides a dramatic motor in himself, bringing the film to an emotional climax where he finally wheedles the truth out of the sad, bewildered Perry.

The approach of the film has been subject to considerable discussion. This isn’t a biography of Capote and only covers about six years of his life. Instead, it’s an attempt to use specific incidents to reveal the inner man through the way he behaves. To some extent, this works and it’s a refreshing way of presenting a life. But I think it means that the film doesn’t do justice to Truman Capote. This fascinating, multi-faceted man is brilliantly portrayed by Hoffman but it’s not really a fair portrayal because it denies the redeeming humanity of Capote’s artistic vision. In his excellent review for Slate, the critic David Edelstein brilliantly describes how Capote’s writing brought understanding and humanity to Perry Smith. This seems to me to be absent from the film. Capote may well have been a cold bastard and an opportunistic one but he was also humane, baroque and endlessly fascinating. Watching the film you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing of consequence happened to Truman Capote after 1965. But what about his legendary masked ball held at the New York Plaza Hotel in November 1966 to honour the publisher of the New York Times? Or the battles with Paramount over his rejected screenplay for The Great Gatsby. His position as darling of the chat shows in the 1970s? His stab at being an actor with Murder By Death? The controversy over the extracts in Esquire from his unfinished novel “Answered Prayers” or the new short stories and novellas that emerged including the stunning confidence trick of “Handcarved Coffins” from 1980. There’s so much to say about Capote that goes beyond the scope of this film that the resulting impression is that Miller and Futterman are missing some of the same compassion which they find lacking in their central character. Their portrait acknowledges Capote’s evident weaknesses as a human being but doesn’t quite get at the fact that the one person he undoubtedly used up and hung out to dry was himself.

But there’s enough in the film to keep you watching and the emotional impact of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is staggering. It’s a shame he is given so little competition from the other actors. Catherine Keener is excellent but underused (as ever) and there’s not enough of Chris Cooper as the local police chief with whom Capote shares an amicable but slightly combative relationship. Clifton Collins Jr’s puppy-eyed Perry Smith doesn’t give him much to play against – although that’s probably a pretty accurate reflection of what Smith was like and the thing which allowed Capote to manipulate him so adroitly. There are hints that Mark Pellegrino’s Richard Hickcock, a grinning satyr, could have been very memorable if the filmmakers had shown any signs of being remotely interested in him. Even characters who should be important – Jack Dunphy, Capote’s partner, and New Yorker editor William Shawn – aren’t allowed to make an impression. The filmmakers seem to have been keen to clear a space around him so no-one gets in the way of his performance. But this is a mistake because Hoffman is a powerful enough presence not to need any allowances made for him and with more provocation from his fellow actors, the performance might have been even greater.

The Disc

Sony’s DVD of Capote offers a fairly good presentation of the film. Sadly, the bonus materials are limited and disappointing.

The visual style of the film is deliberately grey and muted and this 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer presents it quite nicely. There’s plenty of detail and a pleasing sharpness to the transfer which makes it very easy to watch. The colours are intentionally toned down throughout. There’s a fair amount of grain, again presumably deliberate, but no problem with artifacting. I am however, a little puzzled about the amount of dirt on the transfer at times. Surely this wasn't intended?

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is subdued, as you’d expect, although the surrounds are sometimes filled out by ambient sounds of one kind or another and the dialogue is usually directional. It’s clear and crisp with a particularly subtle and attractive music track.

The principal special features are two commentary tracks, one from Bennett Miller and Philip Seymour Hoffman and the other from Miller and DP Adam Kimmel. Neither is especially interesting and both have a lot of gaps where some talking would have been welcome. There’s a lot of self-conscious solemnity about the work and not a lot of entertainment value or insight. Quite often, observations trail away with a certain measure of embarrassment.

Otherwise, we get a wide selection of trailers for upcoming Sony movies (but not Capote) and three featurettes, none of them particularly satisfying. The first is a travesty – a six minute look at Capote’s life which tells you virtually nothing about the man. The other two are making-of pieces which are reasonably informative but pretty much by-the-numbers. Miller features heavily and is very pleased with himself indeed. The best element of these two featurettes is the contribution from Hoffman which is always intelligent and focused. Overall, however, there’s a sense of getting away with not saying very much and waiting for the inevitable 2-disc special edition release.

The film has optional subtitles in a wide range of languages including English. The special features are not subtitled.

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