Karen Sees Capote (and finds herself at a loss for a witty title)

by Karen Gsteiger

Spoilers, as usual.

Capote, a biopic about the creation of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and in particular about Capote's relationship with a murderer, was probably one of my most anticipated films of 2005; after reading a review in Vanity Fair, I picked up In Cold Blood to bone up for the Chicago release. Usually In Cold Blood is something one is assigned to read in college or high school English classes, but somehow that was never part of my curriculum. I'm glad that I didn't have term papers or other academic pressures detracting from my enjoyment of this chilling masterpiece. Instead, I found myself absorbed, enthralled, horrified, and frantically turning the pages on the exercise bike. (I commonly read at the gym to try to forget the physical exertion.) If you take nothing else from this review (because I know the relative unimportance of my opinions in the world), please, please, please read In Cold Blood if you haven't already done so. Or read it again. After a hard day at work, I certainly don't have the words to describe the richness of the language, the loving detail of the reporting, and the humanity for both sides of the tragedy that fills every page.

So what drew me to the movie, if I hadn't even originally read the source material? As with True Story, I find myself fascinated with the dangerous relationship that a writer can have with a killer. Even more fascinating is the fact that someone as fey and urbane and eccentric and so--well, so very, very gay as Capote would be able to connect so deeply with the dyed-in-the-wool conservatives in Kansas in the 1960s. I particularly wanted to see how Capote was able to persuade the residents of Holcomb to reveal such painful and intimate details of their lives. Also, I was happy to see that Harper Lee, Capote's childhood friend and the author of one of my very favorite novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, played a key role in the creation of In Cold Blood as Capote's research assistant, diplomatic envoy, and bodyguard. In addition to my expectations of the plot, I was very much looking forward to the performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener, which have earned rave reviews. In short, it looked like the perfect arthouse movie date with good friends.

The film Capote is actually based on Gerald Clarke's biography of the same name. I just picked it up this evening, actually, and have made it my new exercise bike project. I have found that it is a long book (551 pages) to be adapted into a 90-some minute movie. Fortunately, the film covers only the period during which Capote researched and wrote In Cold Blood and reveals a lot about his character--memorable and manipulative--in the meantime.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the back story, on November 15, 1959, two young men, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, murdered four members of a loving, upstanding family for seemingly no reason. Although they originally intended to rob the Clutter family, after they had slit the throat of the father and shot the other members of the family in the head, they left the house with only $40-50. In Cold Blood sets out to chronicle this story, paint a picture of the victims and the idyllic rural town that was shattered by this crime, cover the trial, and attempt to discern the motivations and psyches of the killers, who were executed five years later.

When Hoffman's Capote arrives in Holcomb, one can hardly imagine that anyone in Kansas would open up to him, especially the lead investigator, Alvin Dewey, a straight-laced, no-nonsense, dedicated manly man type. Harper Lee's gentle, maternal presence helps, but Capote's literary fame is what really opens doors for him. That, and his arresting personality, as evidenced in the scene in which he convinces the young girl who found the Clutters' bodies to speak to him in detail and even to hand over Nancy Clutter's diary. During the course of writing his work--a breakthrough in literature as the "nonfiction novel" or the first real and unsurpassed "true crime" novel--Capote develops an intense bond with Perry Smith, the sociopath who sees himself as an artistic intellectual. The film grapples with the ambivalence of their relationship. Capote sometimes cares deeply about Smith and is perhaps in love with him, but sometimes Capote cares only for himself. At first he promises Smith better legal representation, but then as he is chasing literary glory and an end to his novel, he can't wait for the man to be executed. Smith hopes that Capote's work will plead for clemency in his case; Capote continually lies about his progress and the book's title. The movie hints that Capote will achieve literary greatness with this book, but it will also exact a price; he begins his descent into alcoholism.

If that seems to be giving the whole story away, don't worry--it's not. Just as with In Cold Blood, you pick up the book most likely knowing of the nature of the crime and who did it. The joy of reading the book is in the details. And the joy of watching the film is seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman so fully inhabit his character. He is mesmerizing in this film--he really makes you understand how a person so at odds with the rest of society could be so charming and spell-binding. (I'm also curious as to how they made Hoffman appear so short; they must have done some Lord of the Rings-esque camera tricks.) I enjoyed Keener's performance as well. Her presence in the movie is sisterly and comforting, and she (as well as Truman's partner, Jack Dunphy) acts as a sort of moral center of the film. You can see her fondness and indulgence turn to concern and then finally to a form of disgust as Truman reveals his naked ambition.

I have only two beefs with the film Capote. One, it seems to drag in the middle. I think the scenes with Perry Smith could have been cut a bit, which leads me to my second beef. Of course, I do not expect a 90-minute movie to compare with the actual book, but In Cold Blood was a much more balanced work. One fully gets to know and mourn for the Clutter family and for the devastated neighbors and friends they left behind. In the film, the Clutters seem to be "the people who got shot" as the filmmakers focus more heavily on Truman's relationship with the murderers. A friend who accompanied me who hadn't read In Cold Blood asked if the book seemed to be that sympathetic to the killers. And, certainly, it is not. The book does not excuse the killers for their heinous acts, but it does reveal their humanity. But just as much attention is paid to the individual members of the Clutter family--their hopes, their dreams, their generosity and quiet strength. I know it is hard to capture that sense of balance while trying to tell a dramatic story, but it is the reason that the film will (as is usually the case) never measure up to the book.