At first, the title of this film seems inaccurate: This biopic doesn't encapsulate Truman Capote's entire life, from cradle to grave. It's solely about the five years in which the famous writer (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) wrote his true crime masterpiece In Cold Blood. But on second thought, the film isn't about the creative process or the relationship between author and subject - though it appears to be on the surface. No, it is, absolutely, about the vain, insecure, ambitious, alcoholic author Truman Capote. So the title works.
By using as its subject matter the writer's involvement with the 1959 murders of Holcomb, Kansas's Clutter Family, particularly with charismatic murderer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr., very good), the film pinpoints the peak of Capote's career. A huge bestseller, In Cold Blood solidified its author's talents while at the same time paving the way for his downward spiral. (It was in fact his final book: his long-awaited follow-up, a scandalous tome exposing the secrets of the New York literati, was never finished because word got out about the contents, and his friends abandoned him en masse. He died in 1984, a drunken mess.)
So as Capote researches the murders, and grows ostensibly close to Smith, what's really revealed are Capote's manipulative tendencies, his dreams of success overshadowing any of the moral implications of befriending - and taking advantage of - the human subjects of his book. But although you may initially feel sorry for Perry Smith, who hopes against hope that his famous writer "friend" will save him from the hangman's noose, the reality was that he was a brutal slayer of four innocent people. So who's using whom?
Capote brings up a number of intriguing questions, inspiring good post-movie discussion. It is a smart film about smart people; Dan Futterman's script (adapted from Gerald Clarke's full biography of Capote) never puts a stupid word in anyone's mouth. Capote's friends - namely, his childhood pal Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) and his companion Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) - are fully aware of his every dubious decision, and they call him on it. (If anything, this happens a little too frequently: there are several variations on somebody saying "Come on, Truman, you're just doing this for yourself" while a lisping Capote vaguely denies their accusations.)
Bennett Miller, whose only previous feature is the documentary The Cruise, about another squeaky-voiced Manhattan raconteur, directs with aplomb. Capote is slow and measured, quiet and serious, with intense attention paid to every period detail. It perfectly captures the early '60s, from the hair styles to the constant smoking to the era-appropriate faces. (The only thing disingenuous about it is that Manitoba subs for Kansas, New York, and even Spain!)
As for Hoffman, his performance is one that people tend to rave about without having actually seen. In truth, it's good, no-nonsense work. No Oscar-ready monologues or scenery-chewing exercises. He is as quiet as the film. As such, he may in fact be forgotten come Oscar time, because he's just too subtle.
In short, I liked Capote very much, though it only makes me want to know more about its own subject matter. (For example, Harper Lee turns from unpublished writer to heralded creator of To Kill a Mockingbird during the course of the film, but it's only brought up in a historical context.) What's notable is that 2006 will bring a film with the exact same subject matter. It will be very interesting to see how differently that film will handle the story. With Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee, I don't have high hopes for it.