There's no way of knowing how Truman Capote would have been remembered had he not written In Cold Blood. It's not unsafe, however, to assume that if he hadn't penned one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century, that he might have been little more than a footnote in literary history—a mincing queen who was famous more for being famous than he was for anything he wrote. But Capote did write In Cold Blood, and, as they say, nothing was the same after that.
Based on Gerald Clarke's biography, Capote takes place at a critical crossroads in the writer's life. It is late 1959 when Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reads a small article in The New York Times detailing the murder of a farmer and his family in rural Kansas. Capote wants to write about the case for the New Yorker, so with his assistant Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener as the To Kill A Mockingbird author) in tow, he journeys to the tiny town of Holcomb. With his sophisticated wit and charm—not to mention the help of Lee—Capote ingratiates himself with the locals, including Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the lawman committed to finding the killers. Soon, the writer is convinced that there is more of a story to be told than a magazine article can contain—he must write a book about the murders on a Kansas farm that claimed the lives of the Clutter family.
In a performance that relies as much on subtlety and nuance as it does impersonation, Hoffman is brilliant as Capote. He plays the writer as a self-absorbed opportunist who sees in the killings a chance to write something that had never been written before—the nonfiction novel. This would not be the sort of dry, straightforward narrative that defined most nonfiction writing—Capote's book would employ the writing style and conventions previously reserved for fiction. But to achieve his goal, he would have to get to know killers Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) intimately, even if doing so meant lying to them to create a facade of trust.
Just as the book and the film In Cold Blood painted chilling portraits of the depths to which human beings can sink, so, too, does Capote. Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman show Capote to be, in his own way, as ruthless and cold-blooded as Smith and Hickcock. The author's seemingly altruistic efforts to keep them alive are revealed to be nothing more than creating opportunities to interview them, and as their executions are stayed, Capote laments his inability to finish his masterpiece. But when the execution finally arrives, Capote must come to terms with the role he has played in this nonfiction drama he has so eloquently written himself into.
With exceptional performances from the entire cast, especially Collins, Hoffman's stunning work serves as the glue that holds Capote together. But of equal import are Miller's direction and Futterman's script, which breathe life into one of the most compelling cinematic works of the year.