Philip Seymour Hoffman’s victory at the Oscars for his performance as celebrated US writer Truman Capote came as a surprise to no one. For the duration of the film, Hoffman steals the show, showing off his obvious talents as an actor. But in the process he overshadows the other key figures of the film.
The underlying story is of Capote’s efforts as a writer for the New Yorker to uncover a community’s reaction to the senseless and horrific murder of a loving family of four in Halcomb, Kansas in 1959. But events take an unexpected turn when he strikes up a complex relationship with the family’s murderers, in particular Perry Smith. The result is his most defining work as an author entitled In Cold Blood.
However, the difficult relationship between Capote, the writer, and Smith the murderer is what really defines this film. On the surface, they could not be more different: Hoffman’s Capote is a gay, cosmopolitan, party hopping raconteur, always the centre of attention with his alarming falsetto voice and sharp humour; Perry (played by Clifton Collins Sr) is suspicious, withdrawn, nervous and with the potential to violently explode.
Dig beneath the surface, though, and you find that there is a lot more that unites than divides. Both of them were abandoned, alcoholic, and had a parent that killed themselves. “Both of them were short oddities, outsiders who turned to writing and drawing as a means of catharsis and expression,” Bennett Miller, the film’s director, recently pointed out.
Unfortunately, having studied In Cold Blood in great detail at college, I found the film wanting when it came to exploring the complexities and history of Perry’s character and what drove him to commit such an appalling crime. Instead he is portrayed as a weak, insignificant pawn in Capote’s tactical gameplay.
But to be fair that is the message Bennet is trying to get across. Capote wanted to become the most highly regarded writer on the planet, which meant manipulating his increasingly close relationship with Perry in order to finish the book. Capote could have tried to save Smith from the gallows, but he needed an ending for his book, and so chose to turn his back on his friend.
Hoffman’s striking performance is a joy to watch, although his voice becomes a little ingratiating by the end. He is ably supported by Catherine Keener, who plays Capote’s close friend, and confidant Harper Lee, writer of the classic novel To Kill a Mocking Bird. Chris Cooper of American Beauty fame also plays his part as the sheriff of Holcomb on the receiving end of Capote’s manipulative charm offensive.
For those of you who have not read the book, I highly recommend you do so first before watching this film to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of the victims and their murderers. And if you have read the book, this film provides a fascinating insight into the dual personality of the author and what happened behind the scenes.
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