Truman Capote was as corny as Kansas in November, which is to say not corny at all.
So what was the elfin, mincing, vicuna-wrapped, dowager-loving, gossip-mongering, gay, E.T.-looking writer doing in a small village in the western edges of the Jayhawk State in November 1959? (He probably didn't even know what a jayhawk was.) The answer is twofold, according to Gerald Clarke's great 1988 biography "Capote" and this terrific movie based on a substantial part of it: writing a great book and destroying himself.
That intertwined trajectory of creation and destruction is at the heart of the severe film, almost like a diagram of the primal Faustian bargain: The artist grows so much and gains so much, achieves immortality, really -- and it only costs him his soul.
Capote, a doyen of the salons (but never the saloons) of the Upper East Side and secure in his world and reputation as the New Yorker's best and brightest boy, saw an article in the Nov. 15 New York Times recounting the slaughter of a prosperous farm family named Clutter on the high wheat plains by persons unknown. Something provoked his imagination, perhaps the hugeness of the crime juxtaposed with the stolidity of the community and its solitude way out there where the rain is Tess, the fire's Jo and they call the wind Maria. Within days he was headed there in the company of his boyhood chum, the soon-to-be-published writer Harper Lee, who served as his enabler as he attempted to make contact with the sundered town, its law enforcement professionals and, ultimately, the perpetrators of the deed.
In "Capote," director Bennett Miller, writer Dan Futterman and most of all actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role (all are boyhood friends, publicity materials say) capture this process with exquisite accuracy if minimal flourish: The genius of the film, besides Hoffman's stunning performance, is that it knows exactly how much is enough. It never overplays, lingers or punches up. It "writes," as it were, in the cinematic equivalent of the spare, eloquent prose the New Yorker is famous for.
Miller shrinks each sequence to its salient story point, then quits it in a rush. It's almost as if he went through Futterman's screenplay and cut the first half out of every scene. Meanwhile, he uses the severe landscape -- flat, the horizon a hundred miles out, the sky gray and mean, the wind making the sound like folks was out there dyin', the rustle of the dry corn, the frozen patches of snow -- to suggest the inner state of its title antagonist's mind.
And the filmmakers pull no punches (neither did Clarke's book, although Capote's did): Truman's a bitch. With an airy wave of his fat, moist fingers he disdains poor, square cop Alvin Dewey (played by Chris Cooper as if his first name were Gary) and then acknowledges, in a throwaway line as he Joan-Crawfords dramatically through the police station with a sweep of his stylish coat, "Oh, I don't really care if you catch them or not." Not exactly meant to endear himself to stoical law-'n'-order types. (Miller has great fun contrasting Capote's piping flounce with the doughy, so-butch faces of the Kansas lawmen.)
But Tru has charm and, though you can't see it under the gay bling, grit. And he's able to use his outsiderness to reach people from odd angles, for example playing up his New Orleans background to captivate Dewey's wife, a New Orleanian herself. You never heard N'Awleansean spoken with such high Tallulahesque zing! As he was with the Dowager Swans of the Rich Old Lady set in New York a few years later, he's able to ingratiate himself first with her, and by extension with the square-shootin' Dewey, which gives him almost unlimited access to the investigative machinery of the state and, in turn, the cred to get inside the prison system. Other than Dewey and Catherine Keener's grounded but hardly Alabama-seeming Lee, the movie has nothing nice to say about anyone. It views all humanity through Truman's jaundiced eyes, including himself. It suggests that not only was the killing done in cold blood, but, over the following few years, so was the writing.
"Capote" gets at the writer's ethical dilemma: Real people and their lives are never as tidy as a good story, and they must be nudged, shoved, manipulated to get with the program. Every writer of long-form nonfiction faces this issue; he also needs the cooperation of people his book will be unkind to, and so the manipulations are creative, as are, in his interior life, his justifications.
Throughout the long writing (close to six years) of "In Cold Blood," Capote plays these games with a grandmaster's finesse, even when they become clouded by emotional engagement, possibly even love. He falls for one of the killers, a forlorn and embittered loser named Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). Yet even as he loves the poor wretched thing that Perry is, he must use him, first to find out what it is that enables a man to put a 12-gauge muzzle to the head of other humans and pull the trigger -- four times! -- and second, for the killer's account of the event, which he knew would form the climax of his book and make it great.
So he seduces Perry at least metaphorically (the picture avoids the suggestion that some others have made of a physical relationship) and guides him by offering and withholding love, by enabling the young man's fantasies of specialness and, cruelest of all, by denying the nature of the book he is writing, even to the point of lying about what the book's title will be. He also knows something more terrible: His book will be better if Perry swings at the end of the Kansas hangman's rope. He needs that scene.
Stories of ambition -- "Champion," "What Makes Sammy Run" -- usually turn on a sociopathic hero, following men without consciences who backslap, then backstab (the same backs) their way to the top without a qualm. "Capote" revises this formula; the point it makes, and almost as a dish of justice served hot, is that all this cost Capote everything. He did what he had to do, he wrote what he had to write, and he was left with fame and fortune -- and plenty of nothing. It ignores theories of alcoholism (the writer's clear problem, no matter what else may have afflicted him) as disease. Instead it treats alcoholism as a symptom of a deeper soul rot.
As a structure, the movie also has a weird resemblance to a basketball game. Wha? Well, yes, in this one sense: Remember in the old days of the 76ers, before there was a Michael Jordan or a Magic Johnson but there was a Dr. J? Remember Dr. J? The saying was: Back away and let him operate, and the best thing the Sixers did was cluster in one quadrant of the court, making way for the Doc's fabulous moves. He won them a championship that way.
That's what they do with Hoffman in this picture. No one fights him for it, no one stands against him. It's his picture, not merely because Hoffman interceded with the financiers to obtain money, not because he exec-produced, but because he is the movie. Every one else backs off and lets him do his moves, which include a simpering, unselfconscious effeminacy, a wrist that seems to be filled with helium and a voice that is somewhere between a lisp and a death rattle.
There's also some hypocrisy filtered through this, what you might call the movie's own corruption of ambition. The filmmakers judge Truman sharply for his use of Perry as a source for the murder scene -- Capote even overemphasized it by pulling it out of chronology and moving it to the rear of the book -- but they do the same. Though the movie isn't a remake of "In Cold Blood" (there's already been one), it uses that book's structure, beginning with the discovery of the bodies on the plain, ending with a powerful blast of violence (more violent than Richard Brooks's 1967 film), including an image of a twitching Mr. Clutter, his throat cut and gushing. Then there's the hanging, far more graphic than the original. So they may condemn Tru for his ruthlessness, but by using the product of it, aren't they operating in blood just as cold?
Capote (98 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for scenes of violence and brief strong language.