Right, right: the acting by Philip Seymour Hoffman is phenomenal (that’s nothing new) and the movie’s got a boffo look and color palate that makes it seem like things are out of focus in a creepy, unsettling way. But what really gives this movie its punch, what takes it beyond something for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s personal acting (and undoubtedly Oscar) reel, is the way it captures Kansas and the Midwest. I can’t remember another movie that captured the feeling of the Midwest quite as well as this movie did. It’s not just the romanticism of the wide open spaces or the banality thereof, but the casual, unthreatening way Chris Cooper’s KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) officer threatens Truman Capote’s life while simultaneously allowing him to access investigation files. The way Amy Ryan, as Cooper’s wife, cagily smiles at Capote, delighted to have a celebrity in her midst, but unable to fully express it. The movie conveys not only the beauty and monotony of the landscape’s blight, but also the way the landscape inspires gentleness, even while its citizens are in the midst of overpowering emotions.
A great deal of this gentleness must be credited to Clifton Collins Jr., playing one of the killers featured in Capote’s In Cold Blood. His Perry Smith is quietly reflective, lonely, and, very, very sad. In this way, he’s the perfect rural foil for the flamboyant and effusively urban Capote and the actor excels at the role, holding his own against Hoffman. He turns a confession scene late in the movie into a powerful moment about the triviality of murder. Capote describes Smith as someone who might have, had circumstances been different, turned out much like himself and so, it’s clear that what we’re watching is Capote face part of himself. Collins, as much as Hoffman, makes this interesting.
While noting this, it really is Hoffman’s movie all the way. The movie faces two giant, cliché-ridden genre hurdles: the biopic and the struggling writer movie. The movie clears both of them, mostly through the editing. Much like the equally successful Ed Wood, the movie uses the microcosm of Capote’s research into In Cold Blood to illuminate the life of the man, rather than give us a sweeping account of his entire life. As such, Capote is edited within an inch of its life to focus squarely on Capote’s perspective during this period in his life. The writing is taken for granted, so there’s actually very little struggling, though events in the real-life make it impossible for him to finish his book. Hoffman carries the film on his shoulders, disappearing into the role and capturing the essence of Truman Capote, if not pulling off an accurate impersonation.
The movie’s keenly observant about everything: from the details of a Kansas execution to the way Capote relates to his lover. And it carries an impressive authenticity about its time and place due to the fact that all of the usual period “goods” (costuming, sets, etc.) are less interesting than the main conflict. Still, for all its authenticity and observation, it’s a dreamy movie, languorously paced and soft on the eyes. It’s a great biopic, finding exactly the right tone (in this case, it’s a counterpoint to Capote’s flamboyance) to elucidate the inner life of the person it’s focusing on.
Oh, and it’s always nice to see Bob Balaban.