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  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2005 1 Jan
from Film Forum, 11/03/05

Bennett Miller's film Capote should encourage a resurgence of interest in Truman Capote's writing, especially In Cold Blood. Capote's notorious, groundbreaking "nonfiction novel" chronicles his investigation of the murders of a family of four in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959, and Miller's film examines the events that led to the volume's publication.

At first glance, the story of an artist with compassion for prisoners would seem like a story of Christian virtue. And Capote, as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, certainly demonstrates compassion for Perry Smith, the killer he befriends during his visits while researching a story for his next book.

But Miller's film is not a tale of virtue. As Capote interviews Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.), cozying up to him in his death-row cell, he loses his way. With the support of The New Yorker, which serialized his story, Capote gains Smith's confidence through lies, even as his affection for the man complicates his feelings and his work. And ultimately, he exploits him, driven by an ego swollen with the praise for his previous work. Haunted by the nightmares of his childhood, Capote was a man who kept his troubled heart concealed. His mind was an enigma, but his talent was undeniable. Viewers will respond with conflicting feelings about the man as they watch his fascinating fluctuations between pity and pride, sympathy and selfishness.

Hoffman, who has earned critics' praise for performances in films such as The Big Lebowski, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Almost Famous and Punch-Drunk Love, takes on this difficult task and succeeds brilliantly, completely transforming himself into a bold and eccentric character with a voice like an infant's whine and a hunger for the spotlight. He's given strong support by Bruce Greenwood, and Chris Cooper, and Catherine Keener, who plays Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Miller has directed a film that deserves high honors.

It's already being praised by mainstream critics as one of 2005's best films, and Hoffman deserves the Academy Award nomination he's likely to earn—he may even win. But screenwriter Dan Futterman should also receive recognition for penning a rare and provocative work that asks us to consider the ethical challenges that many artists and journalists face.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "Miller's sobering film masterfully recreates the early 1960s … Hoffman does a spot-on impersonation of Capote, and paints a picture of a man whose vanity and frivolousness often get the upper hand. It's far from an approving portrait … For a while it seems the film might be painting too sympathetic a picture of the culprits, especially Smith. But even as Capote warms, or seems to warm to him, we're given enough of a balanced picture so that we can plainly see Smith is far from a wounded puppy. Capote is one of the best adult films of the year, and Hoffman a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination."

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) offers a different take: "I like In Cold Blood so much that I found the movie frustrating. Rather than explore the impact that the book had … Capote is a by-the-numbers portrayal of the artist's lot in life, complete with triumphs (a standing ovation!), disappointments (people like Harper Lee better than me!), and emotional breakdowns (more booze!). Those who haven't read the book might find this enjoyable despite its banality, and everyone will appreciate Hoffman's brilliant turn, but trust me when I say the book is better."