It is of course a comical image: fey, mincing, piping little Truman Capote in his vicuna coat and cashmere scarf tiptoeing around the bleak, western wheat-field burg of Holcomb, Kan., in the wake of some horrific murders about which he admits he doesn't really care.

The sallow Kansans stare at him as if he'd ballooned in from Oz, which, in a sense, he had. Capote, of course, had come to Kansas to investigate the 1959 murders of a wealthy farmer named Clutter and his wife and two kids -- shotgunned to death after they'd been bound and gagged -- and to write what became his brilliant "nonfiction novel," "In Cold Blood."

In "Capote," Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the elfin gay writer, and although he's a much bigger guy, he makes you believe in the man: an artist's personality, ruthless and shrewd; a hysteric's delicate grasp of his emotions; a charmer whose wiles could wear down even the wary Kansas lawmen. It's a performance, not an impersonation, and it takes us through the arc of Capote's ordeal: The book took more and more of him, and he even fell in love with one of the murderers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) while realizing that the imposition of the death penalty gave him the perfect ending to what he hoped would be -- and did become -- his greatest achievement.

At the same time, the movie is astringent, almost shorn of rhetoric. It makes its points in brief scenes simply composed, without fretwork or flash. The writer and director, Dan Futterman and Bennett Miller, respectively, are extremely agile in this production, giving the movie a minimalist's purity, which feels refreshing in this age of excess.

-- Stephen Hunter

Philip Seymour Hoffman is powerful as the title character in the drama "Capote," starring Catherine Keener as Harper Lee.