Crimes and Misdemeanors

`Capote': traces the writer's coldblooded pursuit of his story.

Review A+

October 28, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

JUST WHEN YOU MIGHT give up on young American film directors making art the way Bergman and Kurosawa did, along comes Bennett Miller's quiet, tumultuous Capote.

It's a bleakly funny, profoundly unsettling depiction of Truman Capote as a young literary lion, or maybe an overgrown cub, on the scent of his Next Big Thing: a "non-fiction novel" about a Kansas murder. It begins as a deft high comedy about a cosmopolitan man of letters endearing himself to the boondocks. Then it expands into a heart-stabbing, dizzying examination of the exploitation that occurs in friendships, work relations, and the bond between a journalist and his subject.

"The human face is the great subject of cinema," Ingmar Bergman said. In this three-way triumph shared by Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman with their star, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote's face becomes a complex portrait of an artist. Jawing in a New York party scene, he manages to be simultaneously outrageous, truthful and beguiling.

In an anecdote from the pages of Gerald Clarke's magisterial biography Capote (the movie's source book), he tells how James Baldwin wanted to make sure that his latest work wouldn't be "one of those problem novels." Capote says he replied, "Jimmy, your novel is about a Negro homosexual who is in love with a Jew. Wouldn't you describe that as a problem?"

The visual tragedy of Capote comes from watching Hoffman assume Capote's fey abandon, from his sashaying walk to his piping voice, and then slacken the spring in his gait and siphon the joy from his demeanor. The movie becomes the odyssey of a man who achieves a self-knowledge that defeats instead of strengthens him. But it never becomes a simple downer. As Capote realizes that his artistic success depends on the hanging of a man he, in some ways, loves, Capote defines "gallows humor."

On the hunt for a juicy subject to serve as the center of a New Yorker piece, Capote clips a New York Times article about a father, mother, son and daughter murdered on a Kansas farm, and soon is on the path to Holcomb, the hamlet where the crime took place. To help, he takes along his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), author of the not-yet-published To Kill a Mockingbird. She's a writer with a down-home touch who narrows the gap between this urbane sprite and the solid, four-square citizens who help him get his story.

Miller and Futterman have an appetite for complexity and the skill to create scenes that enable the actors to get it all on-screen. And they have a cast that gives them more than they could have hoped for in their most improbable dreams. Keener as Lee and Bruce Greenwood as Jack Dunphy (Capote's lover) conjure different kinds of intimacy. Lee says that the forthright Dunphy may be what she likes most about Truman, but she and Truman share their own private, humorous complicity.

Keener is spectacular. She breathes an air of writerly sanity into the ambition- and wit-charged atmosphere that Capote brings with him wherever he goes. On-screen, their relationship starts with lighthearted hilarity - a paid-for display of flattery that's funny when it occurs and funnier when she sees through it. It ends with a gruesome hilarity, as Capote sinks so deeply into despondency over his inability to complete his book that he can't even enjoy his friend's success at the 1962 premiere of the film To Kill a Mockingbird.

In between comes Kansas. Lee grasps the journalistic game: she baits their prey with her fresh, open demeanor. Capote draws them in. He unloads his own disarmingly frank confessions of childhood loneliness to the dead daughter's best friend. He impresses culture vultures with his breezy folderol and namedropping. But Lee doesn't lose herself in the game and reads situations better than Capote.

In his initial talk with Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent heading the case, Capote wants to impress the nonplussed lawman with his New Yorker cred. He says, "What I'm going to write will take months. ... It really doesn't make any difference to me if the case is ever solved or not." Of course, it makes "one hell of a difference" to Dewey. Capote wins over Dewey's wife with his charm and Dewey himself with his tenacity. But that splendidly efficient actor Cooper makes clear that Dewey's acceptance of Capote depends on the writer's good behavior.

Capote adjusts and functions beautifully. But once he sets eyes on a killer named Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), he's a goner. Capote can take or leave the other killer, Dick Hickock (the terrific, under-used Mark Pellegrino). The earthy, word-drunk Smith cuts Capote to the quick.

Collins lacks the swollen emotionality that Robert Blake brought to Richard Brooks' film of In Cold Blood (1967). Still, he's a marvelous foil to Hoffman's Capote, as the writer goes from tenderness to brute emotional force and then denial. He plays every role for Smith from potential savior to literary executioner: he knows the very title of his book will seal the evil of Smith and Hickock in the public mind.

Hoffman plays this string out to the end. Langston Hughes asked what happens to a dream deferred. Capote shows that a dream fulfilled can be just as shriveling.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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