" I always wanted to be a criminal I guess. Not this big a one. "
— Martin Sheen, Badlands

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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The publication in 1966 of In Cold Blood, the first “nonfiction novel,” a suspenseful and unsparing description of the brutal murders of a picture-perfect rural Kansas farming family, established a new genre of journalism and made author Truman Capote more famous than he had ever been, but also may have destroyed his ability to write another book.

Hoffman goes beyond mere mannerisms to present Truman
Hoffman goes beyond mere mannerisms to present Truman

Capote, a biographical film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the celebrated gay writer, explores the depth of Capote’s immersion in the story of the townspeople and the murderers. Hoffman could have simply played Capote as a collection of mannerisms — his acerbic tongue at cocktail parties, his high, soft voice, his steady gaze from behind his thick-framed glasses — yet it is the film’s screenplay (written by Dan Futterman, based on the biography by Gerald Clarke) that helps the actor reveal the writer’s compassion and willingness to build his reputation on the misfortune of the two notorious murderers. The combination of Hoffman’s portrayal and the masterful storytelling reveal the writer’s obsessive brilliance.

The film begins in November 1959, when literary celebrity Capote reads a newspaper story about the Clutter family’s murders and decides to write about the townspeople for The New Yorker. Capote and his childhood friend Nell Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) take a train to the town of Holcomb, Kansas. As Capote’s research assistant, Lee, who is on the verge of her own literary fame as the author of the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, helps smooth the way for her effete writer friend, who is both mistrusted by the conservative Kansans and embraced by those who know his writing.

Capote and Lee charm the locals, but as Capote gets closer to the killers he realizes that there is a book in their story. He tells his editor, “There are two worlds in America: the quiet, conservative one, and the world of the criminals, the underbelly. Those worlds converged that night.” Capote persuades one of the murderers to give him his diaries, saying: “If I leave here without understanding you, the world will see you as a monster. I don’t want that.”

It is often easy to forget that we are watching Hoffman and the other actors performing, much the way it was easy to forget when reading In Cold Blood that Capote was not in the farmhouse with Perry Smith and William Hickock on the night of the Kansas family’s horrific slaying. In one of many of the film’s truthful moments, Capote talks about himself, saying his whole life people have always thought they “had him pegged.” by way of empathizing with the slain daughter’s boyfriend, whom the townspeople are suspicious of in the days before the real killers are caught. Later in the film, Capote tells Lee that he has a kinship with Perry Smith, whom he has befriended in the hopes that Smith will tell him exactly what happened in the farmhouse on the night of the murders: “It’s as if we are brothers who grew up in the same house and he went out the back door and I went out the front door.” “Are you kidding me?” Lee retorts, but Capote clearly believes what he is saying.

Capote gives us insight into the depth of Truman Capote’s desire to tell the kind of story that has never been told and make himself famous. We see his peers’ admiration and incomprehension of their friend’s increasing involvement with the killers. We can even share Capote’s compassion for the murderers.

Capote and the other characters are neither whitewashed nor vilified; the film never once moralizes about the characters or situations. Like the greatest art, this film not only allows you to think for yourself but insists that you do so.