One man’s tragedy is another’s opportunity, as Truman Capote must have realised in November 1959 when a New York Times article first drew his attention to a multiple murder in Holcomb, Kansas. The report told of a local farming family – Herbert Cutter, his wife Bonnie and their children Nancy and Kenyon – who had been found bound, gagged and butchered in their own home. Their killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested, tried and found guilty; six years later they were executed.
A sordid tale of senseless slaughter? Or a harrowing metaphor for America’s deep-seated societal divisions? Capote recounts the writer’s quest to fashion one from the other, turning everyday brutality into high art in his international bestseller In Cold Blood. But Bennett Miller’s insightful biopic is more than just a portrait of the artist on the verge of his greatest literary triumph. It’s also an intelligent analysis of the uneasy relationship between the author and his subject, the parasitic exploitation of private grief for personal gain and the eternal conflict between journalistic distance and natural human empathy.
More than anything else, though, it’s a brilliant showcase for Philip Seymour Hoffman, a character actor par excellence finally given the chance to shine in a leading role. And boy, does he shine. The dough-faced star of Happiness and Magnolia might be too stocky to be a physical match for the diminutive, flamboyantly gay Capote, but he perfectly captures the reedy lilt, fey mannerisms and rhino-skinned self-absorption that make his arrival in Holcomb so distracting for Chris Cooper’s earnest, suspicious lawman. As Miller’s drama develops, however, what had appeared a camp caricature matures into a richly layered, nuanced portrayal of a man trapped by his persona and tormented by his talent.
The 1967 film of In Cold Blood told a grim saga of crime and punishment with an anti-death-penalty slant. Those same elements are present in Capote, but they’re lent an additional charge by the unsettling bond which forms between the writer and Perry Smith, the baby-faced killer whose awful acts seem incompatible with his docile nature. Collins Jr has less to work with than Hoffman but still makes Perry a pathetic, touching figure whose demise we, like Truman, both dread and root for. Elsewhere Catherine Keener offers unfussy support as the novelist Harper Lee, Capote’s friend, assistant and self-appointed bodyguard.
Wordy, sombre and meticulously paced, this won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s also a story that’s been told before, though not from this perspective. That it compels, moves and involves is testament to Miller’s intuitive direction and particularly its star, who gives the kind of performance Oscars are made for.