Killer story

Capote captures the famous and eccentric novelist at work

THE TRUMAN SHOW <br>Philip Seymour Hoffman reaches deep to play the flamboyant title role.

Philip Seymour Hoffman reaches deep to play the flamboyant title role.

Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Clifton Collins Jr. Directed by Bennett Miller. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

“Biopics"—movie biographies—are notoriously dicey propositions. This one, while not entirely free of the genre’s tendency to fudge a little on actual history, is an unusually sharp and intriguing one—both for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s extraordinary, and much-admired, incarnation of the title role, and for its starkly engaging picture of a gifted, troubled writer taking on a dark, difficult subject.

The writer in this instance is Truman Capote (1925-1984) and the dark, difficult subject is the murder of an entire family in rural Kansas in 1959. Capote’s account of the case, including his portraits of the two killers who were caught, convicted and eventually executed, would become his most famous book, the much-noted “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood (published in book form in 1965, and made into a successful film in 1967).

Screenwriter Dan Futterman and director Bennett Miller focus almost exclusively on the six years of his life that Capote devoted primarily to the book, but what results is less a chapter of biography than a portrait of a distinctively modern and obsessive artist combined with fragmentary glimpses of figures in the social and cultural landscape from which In Cold Blood emerged. That striking cast of secondary characters includes literary folk who are variously “behind-the-scenes” (Nelle Harper Lee, Capote’s childhood friend and aide and the author of To Kill a Mockingbird; Capote’s somewhat neglected partner, the novelist Jack Dunphy; and New Yorker publisher William Shawn) and several key figures in the murder case (especially the two killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, but also the Kansas lawman Alvin Dewey).

Clifton Collins Jr. is especially fine as Perry Smith, who emerges here as both lost child and dark spirit, a kind of alter ego and shadow-self to the alternately entranced and detached Capote. And Catherine Keener does astutely understated work in the role of Harper Lee, who functions (perhaps a little too patly in Futterman’s script) as both facilitator and conscience-figure to the strange genius at work on In Cold Blood.

But the heart of the matter, first and last, is in Hoffman’s dazzlingly apt performance. His rendition of the childishly effeminate voice and the fey, banty-rooster flamboyance is thoroughly convincing, and—better yet—he has given us a richly human account of a deeply conflicted character that seems both unique and oddly emblematic in the America of the last half-century or so.