Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Mark Pellegrino
Director:  Bennett Miller
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Sony
Features:  See Review
Length:  114 Minutes
Release Date:  March 21, 2006

“Normal life falls away…but I was never much for normal life.”

Film ****

It’s funny, but In Cold Blood by Truman Capote has been on my ‘must read’ list since I was a teenager.  That list is of indeterminate length and is comprised of books both great and small that I’ve somehow never gotten around to either because of time constraints or a little laziness on my part.  But seeing the movie Capote has put the book much higher up on said list.  Maybe soon I’ll even be able to cross it off.

Capote is a film of quiet strength; it disguises many complex layers under a façade of simplicity.  It’s about the famous writer, of course, and the book that forever defined his career.  It’s about a horrific crime and the men who committed it.  It’s about the creative process, and how sometimes the man shapes the work and sometimes the work shapes him.  It’s also about how the things we create can destroy us at the same time.

Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and numerous other awards for his performance in the title role, which has already become the stuff of legends.  It’s a stunning piece of acting and a career apex, as he completely disappears into the part of the effete intellectual writer who stumbled onto the story of a lifetime…and how that story more or less absorbed his entire soul.

He was an acclaimed writer for The New Yorker and the author of a couple of successful novels including Breakfast at Tiffany’s by 1959.  But while he was enjoying the life of the jet set society, hundreds of miles away, a couple of would-be thieves would break into a house in a small town in Kansas and murder a family of four, including two children.

Capote felt it would be a great story for his magazine if he could report on how such a terrible act of violence shook up a small peaceful town, and he headed there with friend Harper Lee (the Oscar nominated Keener) to share in the experience.  He ends up befriending one of the two murderers, Perry Smith (Collins), and perhaps even falls for him a little bit.  He visits him in prison and attends his trials, where he and Dick Hickock (Pellegrino) are found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

Truman intervenes on their behalf, getting them a better lawyer and some appeals.  All the while, his chats with Perry take on a rather bizarre quality…it has the appearance of soul-baring, but Perry is reticent to discuss the night of the murders.  And we can plainly see that Truman isn’t being honest with him, pretending that he’s written very little when his book was actually two-thirds done, and not telling Perry he was titling it In Cold Blood.

A couple of stays of execution keep the case alive for about six years.  Meanwhile, Capote’s publisher had read the finished parts, and believed the novel would make history.  Harper Lee finished To Kill a Mockingbird and started enjoying worldwide acclaim herself.  The quiet and well-spoken Perry kept his hopes up, but couldn’t understand why Truman was spending less and less time with him.  And the story was beginning to take its toll on Truman himself, turning him from a social drinker into an out and out alcoholic.

He promises the men to help them all the way, but chooses not to get them the last lawyer they would need for the final Supreme Court appeal.  Why?  Truman’s novel needed an ending…and there can really be only one possible outcome to make the story work.

It’s a strange line to walk for those who try to turn the truth into art.  I’ve often wondered what it must be like for documentary filmmakers who start filming a subject when they have no idea what the outcome will be.  At some point, they probably find themselves preferring one option over the other…but if they interfere, they become active participants instead of reporters.  In a sense, Capote made the dark choice to affect the outcome of his own story.  It made him a legend, but pretty much dealt him a blow from which he would never fully recover at the same time.  He never finished another novel, and he died of alcoholism in 1984.

The film, directed by Bennett Miller, is a keen observer of Capote as both man and artist.  It’s a fascinating and disquieting exploration of conscience.  It’s not a question of whether the killers received justice; they got what they deserved.  But maybe in a sense, they were the ones who got off easy.  Capote’s sentence of having to live for a couple of more decades after the fact almost seems like the crueler punishment.

Not enough can be said about Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose uncanny ability to channel the character of Capote in both his outward flamboyance and his inner torment has to be seen to be appreciated.  The writer’s mannerisms could lead an actor dangerously close to parody, but Hoffman found both the inner light and darkness of one of America’s most important authors.

At one point, Capote’s editor proclaims that In Cold Blood would change the way people write.  He might have been correct…pick up any true crime book today and most of them read like novels, channeling the non-fiction into gripping narratives of character and substance.  But many make their mark on history at a terrible personal price.  Capote is about the man, the mark, and that price.

Video ***

This is a mostly good anamorphic offering from Sony.  There is occasional noticeable grain, and some slight flickering effects here and there, but nothing too distracting.  Generally speaking, colors are well rendered and images carry great detail.  The difference between the bright world of New York and the dank cold interiors of the prison cell are particularly striking.

Audio ***

The 5.1 audio delivers about what you’d expect for a dialogue driven film…spoken words are clean and clear and dynamic range is fair.  The score provides most of the signal to the subwoofer and the surround channels are used only sparingly, but still a good clean mix overall.

Features ***1/2

There are two commentary tracks on the disc; both feature Bennett Miller.  In one he’s joined by Philip Seymour Hoffman and in the other by his cinematographer Adam Kimmel.  There is a two part making-of featurette, as well as one on the real Truman Capote.  Rounding out are some previews.


Capote is an unusual film about an unusual man in an unusual situation.  It tells a straightforward story, but don’t let the simplicity of the approach fool you:  this movie explores much in two hours about creativity and destructivity at the same time.  It’s one of 2005’s best.

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