Directed by Bennett Miller.
Rated: R

Review by Hilary White


The Oscar-nominated film Capote opens with a long, still shot of the Kansas prairies creating the backdrop to a solitary farmhouse in which a young woman discovers the bodies of the Clutter family, murdered by two drifters, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. The murders and the two men become Truman Capote’s obsession for four years.

The murderers are quickly caught and convicted. Truman originally intends only to write a quick New Yorker piece on them and the killings, but spends the next four years crafting a book, his masterpiece In Cold Blood, that is to this day a landmark in modern American literature.

His obsession with both the men and his own ambition form the matrix of an astonishing, moving and perplexing biographical film.

The Kansas flatland, the film’s icon for American moral wholesomeness and rural Christian virtue, contrasts starkly with Truman’s fashionably chaotic and sophisticated, smoky, boozy life in the New York glitterati nightclub scene. Truman, having fled a rural, Bible-believing world similar to the Kansas scene of the murders, has one ambition in life, to be the king of the New York scene.

And we know that he succeeded – for a brief moment, he was one of the most famous men in America, the toast of European royalty, film stars and the wealthy transnationals. But his drive for this social pinnacle ended in his ruin.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his first starring role, gives the performance that will certainly make his career and establish him as America’s next premier character actor. His capture of Capote’s almost cartoonishly effete mannerisms, is just the hook that draws the viewer into the sad and morally dismal inner life of the man behind the lifted pinkies and peculiar, effeminate voice.

Hoffman does not bash us over the head with Truman’s shortcomings, but by the end of the film we see the depth of moral confusion and personal anguish he both suffered and inflicted. Hoffman’s Oscar for best actor represents one of the few times in recent history where the Academy got it right.

The secrets to Truman’s unhappiness and duplicity come out a piece at a time and the viewer without a knack for details may well miss the whole point of the film as a sophisticated morality play. Is Truman’s self-obsession tempered with love? While we see Perry apparently repent of his crimes, does Truman regret his selfishness? The question lurks in the mind: is there a saving conflict between Truman’s love and his desire to exploit?

In one especially moving scene, we see a gentle Truman feeding Perry, who has tried to commit suicide by refusing to eat. Leaning over his prison bunk, Truman whispers to the condemned man, “It’s your friend, Truman.” The rest of the film forces the viewer to examine whether Truman lied at that crucial moment of grace.

The social climber Truman and murderer Perry are different images of the same human flaw. Truman himself says it to a friend, who asks him if he has fallen in love with Perry Smith. “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. He went out the back door and I went out the front.”

But we shudder to sympathize with them, because Perry really did kill those people and Truman really exploits Perry’s vulnerability to make himself famous. The film challenges the audience to acknowledge the connection of sinfulness between the two and ourselves. Not “there but for the grace of God go I,” but simply, “There am I.”

The film does not lay out details of Truman’s background or tell any titillating hints of how he “got that way.” His homosexuality remains in the background and does not get any direct mention.

Even his relationship with his friend, Jack Dunphy, is left unspoken. During a writing vacation in Spain, it is not said where either man is sleeping. Though many Christian film reviewers have rated the film “morally offensive” or “gay friendly,” this is not a film about homosexuality.

The Christian reviewers who have so simplistically dismissed it have massively missed the point. If we have to point out that human evil is worthy subject matter for drama, it may be that the secular world’s accusations of the shallowness and myopia of contemporary Christian cultural analysis are not without merit. That not all good stories worth telling are found in the children’s picture Bible is a rule that often seems to linger just beyond the grasp of some Christian writers on media.

Truman Capote was a brilliant man and a dazzling skyrocket in the world of mid-20th century American literature. He was also a flaming queen who lived an immoral lifestyle and died ruined by drugs, sex and drink.

The film offers an ancient explanation for this apparent contrast. Why would such a brilliant man have ended so badl? It is an unflinching examination of the sins – selfishness, envy, exploitation – we ourselves could and do so easily fall into – and their awful consequences.