Capote, directed by Bennett Miller (of recent Moneyball fame) is one of those films that’s heavily geared for people interested in film. The acting and the visuals are things that might be taught in a film study course, but how does it hold up as an actual film itself?
I have been meaning to see Capote for quite some time. I remember spotting the trailer for it on a DVD back in 2005 and thought it seemed interesting as I was always intrigued by the whole story surrounding In Cold Blood and the author behind it (who had also penned Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Beyond that though I came into the film pretty much fresh off the street: I hadn’t heard anything about it good or bad, I hadn’t seen a single frame of the film beyond what was shown in the trailer years ago, and I hadn’t seen the film Infamous, starring Toby Jones, that hit the same exact subject the very next year. So I jumped right in.
The first thing I should mention off the bat is likely the biggest criticism you’re going to hear about the film: it’s slow. I have no problem with films that take their time and those who know me know how much I love The Assassination of Jesse James which most people agree could be an hour shorter, but I could see very early on that the pacing of the film would be a problem to most. You could say it’s the hardest in the beginning, because we as the audience don’t have enough to actually care and pay attention to Capote. As the film continues on the pacing also picks up but not by much, but I’m going to argue that because of the style of the film the gentle pacing is appropriate. This is a movie that’s filled with a lot of questions that never receive an answer upfront, it uses the rule of “always end a scene on a question” to the fullest and really builds a mystery not only in the plot but in the characters.
Now since that’s out of the way I can address the blonde elephant in the room. Truman Capote, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is depicted in the film as an alcoholic with good intentions. Don’t be thrown off by my use of “alcoholic”, we very rarely see Capote completely shitfaced where he’s screaming at people and falling over. It’s no secret Capote was a drunk, it killed him in 1984, but the way the film shows this is subtle. Truman is charming, but at the same time a liar and extremely manipulative, which is a hallmark of many alcoholics. I found it refreshing (no pun intended) to see this as a strong element of his character, but not the entire build of it. Hoffman’s performance is certainly the main reason for seeing this film. He is transformed in his role as this effeminate, playful, and as I discussed moments ago, drunk. But at the same token Hoffman is able to demonstrate other sides of Capote such as his manipulation, his self-centered attitude to turn conversations towards himself, or his unique brand of affection. He really does become the character, not once throughout the film did I think of Hoffman as Hoffman. Never did I imagine him in other roles he’s done, not the least of which has been the phone-pervert from one of my favorite films Happiness.
Hoffman isn’t the only powerhouse to this film either. The role of murderer Perry Smith, played by Cliffton Collins Jr., was an excellent counter to Capote. In many ways the two characters are similar, both are very manipulative and know how to get what they want even if they aren’t aware they’re being manipulative. As Captoe says to friend Nelle Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird), it’s as if he and Smith grew up in the same house and then one day Smith went out the back door while he went out the front. This line drives a point home that both characters are very similar, but their methods and motivations are very different. Collins adds to the film the same powerhouse acting Hoffman does, both delivering great performances that I could easily see being studied and practiced by young aspiring actors. I have heard that some are disappointed in Hoffman’s restraint to show a certain seduction towards Smith as has been done, apparently, in Infamous. I didn’t feel the same way, and while it’s not overt that Capote had love or affection towards Smith more than just a good friend, there are moments when the subtext comes out (such as when Lee flat out asks Capote if he has fallen for Smith, half in jest, and Capote dismisses it). Frankly, I didn’t need that layer to make this film any more compelling than it was, I was satisfied with this direction. What I wasn’t quite satisfied with was the one-dimensional roles for both Lee (played by Catherine Keener) or Capote’s partner Jack Dunphy (played by Bruce Greenwood), but I feel that might have had to do with the scope of the story which was primarily focused on Capote’s connection with Smith. Despite such a small role, Chris Cooper did very well as Alvin Dewey, the local Sheriff.
Capotehas the picture perfect style for a period piece. Not a single piece of dress or prop felt out of place, which much attention to make sure some props got special attention. Colors were muted but featured rich earth tones punctuated by deep blacks and washed out pastels, with only a short scene in Spain featuring any saturation of colors whatsoever. The cinematography, by Adam Kimmel who recently did Never Let Me Go, was again something that would be analyzed frame by frame by film students. His composition, lighting, framing, all painted a visually pleasing film. In addition to the color there was something I couldn’t place my finger on that helped recreate the feel of the time, the film wasn’t super crisp or extra sharp as cameras of the day were capable of doing, and part of me felt that was a conscious decision. I’m also a fan, in particular, of Kimmel’s use of insert shots to show parts of the environment. Small things like pictures on a mantle, the post of a bed, or a door frame with pen marks showing the height of children added that extra bit of eye candy. That all said, however, there’s an often strange and inconsistent use of hand-held camera work that’s jarring and doesn’t serve any purpose than to shake up an otherwise static scene I suppose, but that’s just nit picking. One last interesting detail was that, with the exception of Smith’s execution, there is no musical score for the film that isn’t diegetic. The film is unusually quiet which was strange given the amount of dead air in the slow paced scenes. I didn’t mind this silence but I could imagine for most viewers it would be difficult to keep your attention on the scene and not taking a chance to check your phone.
So in conclusion I felt Capote was an excellent film. It may not be in my Top 10 but I certainly admire a lot of aspects of it. I enjoyed the true life tale, Hoffman and Collin’s performances, and the careful attention to detail in creating a believable period piece. Now would I recommend it to other people? Well if you p
refer at least one explosion, sex scene, or car chase in your movies I’d say pass. Even those who have the patience to watch long and dragged out films (looking at you, Bergman) might find it difficult to get through the whole film. But if you appreciate the artform itself I think you’ll find a lot to like about this piece. Hell if you like Mad Men at all this might be right up your alley due to the elaborate talent that went behind the look of the film, but again no sex scenes as it’s a different kind of drama.
Or go read In Cold Blood, whatever.