Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote: hard egomania and a voice as soft as a silk scarf

<em>Capote</em>, a grisly tale of art and murder, revels in its own gloominess.

Capote (15)
dir. Bennett Miller

Jet-set intrigue, scandalous rumours, the beau monde tricked out in glorious black and white: imagine Truman Capote's life story and you might expect a portrait of parties where slurs and innuendo tinkle like highball glasses and you're only ever a mink stole's breadth away from rubbing shoulders with Elizabeth Taylor. To secure Oscar nominations, however, directors know it helps to accentuate the negative, and Bennett Miller's study of the flamboyant writer is proudly – almost perversely – gloomy. Shot in Sunday-school greys and wet-foliage greens, Capote is a film utterly besotted with its own moral seriousness, a self-conscious attempt to subvert the gossip-magazine format of the standard biopic by taking a long, hard look at the heart of the artist. Unfortunately, by the end of it, Capote isn't the only one who wants to turn to drink.

Dan Futterman's sparse screenplay focuses on the agonising six-year genesis of In Cold Blood, Capote's self-professed masterpiece and an experiment in form that shifted the boundaries of both novel-writing and journalism. Displaying the grimness that sets the tone of the next two hours, the film starts with the discovery of the bodies of the Clutter family at their farm in Holcomb, Kansas, on a cold November morning in 1959. Each one was tied up, then shot in the head, a crime scene of such chilling brutality that a report caught Capote's eye when it found its way into the New York Times. The audience sees Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar-nominated Capote cutting out the story with forensic precision, before announcing to his publisher William Shawn (Bob Balaban, a welcome presence in any film) that he has found the subject of his next grand literary project and he intends to travel to Kansas that night. Futterman and Miller trail Capote and his amanuensis and childhood friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) – at this point still on the brink of publishing To Kill a Mockingbird – as they interrogate the townsfolk and gather the material.

The film reserves its real fascination, however, for the writer's relationship with the killers, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr), whom Capote slowly befriends in order to secure his story, in the process developing an ambiguous obsession with the sensitive sociopath Smith. "It's as if I grew up in the same house," he tells Lee. "Then one day I went out the front door, while he went out the back."

Capote's novel dealt directly with this idea of two clashing realities – the straight, clean-living small-town world of places like Holcomb and the loose, low-living rootlessness of the criminal underclass. Yet in Capote there is also a third world – that of the metropolitan artist, the urban elite – and the film-makers cannot help but be drawn to this milieu's rarefied myths and concerns. Never mind the violence that erupted in the Clutter house, nor the executions at the conclusion of the case; this film wants to work out whether Capote did the right thing and whether his success really made him happy. It tries hard to toy with the audience – at times you feel Capote is merely helping the killers secure good lawyers so he can keep them alive to get his story, much like turkeys being fattened up for Christmas; at others you are encouraged to believe that Capote is falling in love with Smith, that his friendship and grief are real. Despite his rough beginnings, Perry draws adolescent pictures of eagles, uses long words and deposits his angst in a diary. It's the same with Capote: you are encouraged to see his genius as an excuse for some reprehensible behaviour.

There is no doubt that Hoffman deserves his Oscar nomination for Best Actor – just as Capote sidles into the funeral home and opens the Clutter family's coffins, each corpse with its head hugely bandaged in white cotton, so Hoffman exhumes the dead writer. With a voice as soft as a silk scarf and a laugh like a double entendre, he also displays a hard egomania, never happier than when regaling a crowd at a party. (It says a lot about this film's self-flagellating bleakness that the New York party scenes are all set at night in a dim, miserable light. No fun here at all.)

Hoffman subtly captures the writer's descent into alcoholism as he blots out the Clutter case with drink after drink, a huge, slightly repellent infant pouring whiskey into the same baby food he fed to a hunger-striking Perry.

Yet there are threads of Capote's story that remain tantalisingly unexplored. Harper Lee is seen being roundly patronised by the male literary establishment, yet the excellent Keener is given little to do except look sensible and spinsterly. There are undeveloped allusions to Capote's childhood, while his relationship with his long-term partner Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) is poorly explained. Instead Capote lovingly succumbs to the myth of the tortured artist and the artistic criminal, leaving the story's other voices muffled in white cotton bandages.

Editor's note: Philip Seymour Hoffman died on 2 February, aged 46

This article first appeared in the 27 February 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Shamed