Directed by Bennett Miller
Self-destruction is at the heart of Capote, a film about the friendship between an author and a death row inmate.
The film chronicles Truman Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith during his research and writing of his famous nonfiction crime novel, In Cold Blood, his final and most famous novel. Like with a movie like Dead Man Walking, this film focuses on one person’s relationship with a death row inmate. In that relationship we’re made to feel a great deal of sympathy for the man walking the plank, despite what he’s done before.
Like with In Cold Blood, the 1967 film based on Capote’s book, we don’t see the murder unfold until much later in the film. We know what happened, but we don’t know how or why, and the film revels in that senselessness until clarifying things later on. The eventual result is that we feel empathy for a character before seeing what he is truly capable of.
This mirrors the perspective of Truman Capote himself. He’s a novelist and New York socialite who latches onto a brief newspaper column on the Holcomb, Kansas tragedy and declares his intention to cover the murder and subsequent search for those responsible. He is intrigued by the ways in which the murders seem to have been conducted, with a strange blend of brutality and kindness. Despite the violent rifle shots which killed them, the family’s daughter appears to have been tucked into bed, and their son’s head rested on a pillow before he was shot.
Truman Capote’s interest in the story spirals into something like obsession when he meets Perry (Clifton Collins Jr.). The man is a sympathetic figure from the start, wide-eyed and lost in thought while he looks out the window of his temporary jail cell. He asks only for aspirin to help soothe the pain of his injured leg.
Truman remarks how he expected the killers to be large, frightening figures, but instead he identifies himself in Perry, telling his friend Nelle, aka Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”
The rest of the film concerns Truman’s relationship with Perry, even from a distance. His friendship with a convicted killer surely concerned or angered others, but we don’t really see those perspectives here. We are very much insulated in Truman’s world, meaning that outside of himself and Perry, the only people who comment on the friendship are Nelle, his partner Jack (Bruce Greenwood) and his editor, William Shawn (Bob Balaban).
Using his clout as an esteemed writer, Truman will find Perry and Dick a better lawyer than what would have been offered them by the court. He then corresponds with Perry over letters when he’s unable to meet in person, and their friendship carries on for a number of years. During much of this time, however, we are told that Truman avoided Perry’s letters before making up for his absence by showing up in the end.
The second act of the film will race towards Truman encouraging Perry to tell him specifically what happened the night of the murders. He wants to know but mostly just because his book needs an ending, and his editor has pressured him to get Perry to talk. Though a bit hurt, Perry eventually tells him, possibly because he needed to ease his own burden or possibly because he just wants to help what might be his only friend.
As he explains that night’s events, we see them play out with the expected brutality. Outside of the discovery of the bodies to start the film (before we ever meet Truman), this is the only portion of the film outside of Truman’s point of view, even though he’s right there to receive it. *One way to read this, in fact, is that the brutal renderings of the quadruple homicide is Truman’s point of view. It’s how he presented what Perry told him, and perhaps there’s something in there from Truman himself, a detail he changed or left out, or maybe his faithfulness to Perry’s account is itself a reflection of his point of view, of his honesty and objectivity in covering the story as a whole.
Capote dives into Truman Capote’s mind and documents his own downward spiral into depression and, we’re told, alcoholism. That end screen text you always get in movies based on real people and stories typically feels a bit tired, just the final paragraph of a wikipedia entry to let us know what happened after the events of the movie. Here, however, the text feels dense and heavy, letting us know in an unceremonious way that Capote never again wrote a novel and then died from the alcoholism which we’re led to believe began with his involvement in this story.
Up Next: Cool Hand Luke (1967), Le Samourai (1967), Night Moves (1975)