Monday, September 26, 2011

Mini Review: "Capote", Bennett Miller's Previous Directorial Effort

With this weekend's release of "Moneyball",  I realized with surprise that its director, Bennett Miller, had not helmed a film since "Capote" (2005).  I just watched Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote", mostly because "Moneyball" (which I have not yet seen) renewed my interest in Bennett Miller.  

Miller's quiet, focused technique in "Capote" seemed at odds with the fast-paced, expansive style one expects from a sports movie.  Nevertheless, "Moneyball" is a film I would like to see very soon.  In the meantime, I went back and looked at "Capote" again.

"Capote" is spellbinding, mesmerizing...even a bit austere, at times.  Miller and his screenwriter Dan Futterman (so cute as Robin Williams' son in "The Birdcage") concentrate on just four years in the life of writer Truman Capote, the creation of his famous docu-novel "In Cold Blood", and his confused and manipulative affection for killer Perry Smith.  Capote interviewed Smith (who, along with Dick Hickock,  perpetrated the tragic murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in 1959) while doing research for the book.   

Did Truman Capote ingratiate himself with Perry Smith because he identified with Smith's troubled childhood? Was Capote in love with him? Did Capote work on Smith's behalf, and delay Smith's execution, so that Smith would remain alive long enough for Capote to finish his book?  The film skillfully balances these intriguing contradictions, and the script goes deep, giving Hoffman descriptive monologues to paint a portrait of Capote's past.  Capote's well-known flamboyance, charm, and talent are shown along with his self-centeredness, his manipulation of others, and his thoughtless opportunism. 

The film needs a strong center, and Philip Seymour Hoffman brings in a performance of uncommon power, creating a portrait of Capote from the inside-out.  Hoffman seems to have diminished in stature, in what is much more than simple mimicry of Capote's eccentric speech and mannerisms.  Hoffman accomplishes the task of showing Capote's outrageousness, while constantly covering up, hiding his motives.  In his final jailhouse emotional breakdown, Hoffman makes us feel the deep regret, the sudden realization of the depth of his feeling for this killer who is about to die.

"Capote" plays like a virtual re-telling of  "In Cold Blood", but with Capote himself in front and center.  It recreates the horrible incident in the Clutter house in the same manner as "In Cold Blood", first showing the aftermath and later forming the climax of the work, and fleshes out the people and environment of that place and time. (Amusingly, Manitoba, Canada stands in for the bleak, autumnal  locations of  late '50's rural Kansas.) An interesting departure from the book is the addition of Capote's supportive long-time friend and fellow author Harper Lee, who published "To Kill A Mockingbird" while Capote researched the Clutter tragedy.  Catherine Keener plays her warmly, confidently.

Director Miller draws us in with deliberate camera movements and long takes,  and along with his skilled crew and cast (including Chris Cooper), gives us an admirable and thought-provoking work. At times, midway into the film, I would have preferred a lighter touch, and a livelier pace, but the consistency of tone ultimately works.  Seen in the perspective of six years, removed from competition for awards (2005 was a particularly unnerving and contentious award year), "Capote" has emerged as a rightful contemporary classic.

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