Capote has an axe to grind against its subject, the quite horrible but quite gifted writer Truman Capote. It focuses exclusively on the years Capote spent writing In Cold Blood, his “non-fiction” true-crime bestseller about the senseless, brutal murder of a Kansas family, a book that made his reputation and ended his creativity in one fell swoop. Capote is a brisk, well-made, tonally assured film, and it’s engrossing, but it never grows into anything more than a prolonged and detailed character assassination; the audience just sits there shuddering after every awful thing Capote does. If Capote himself were treated with just an ounce more sympathy, we might have a frightening portrait of a manipulative, at times repulsive artist who went too far out on a limb and never recovered. But the film is intent on listing Capote’s crimes of inattention and ruthless ambition as he coddles, cajoles, and threatens two convicted killers in order to get what he needs for his book.
What’s missing here is the reason anyone would want to watch a film about Capote: his writing talent. The man knew how to write a sentence, and In Cold Blood still transcends its shady origins, but we get no sense of that from watching this movie. Without this saving grace, Capote is merely a freakish pathological liar who used people viciously, partied too hard, and drank himself to death. As this high-voiced little tyrant, Philip Seymour Hoffman marshals his formidable technique and puts together an uncomfortable, emotionally inchoate portrait of a babyish viper. As his friend Harper Lee, Catherine Keener provides suitably tactful, at times astringent support. But she gets lost as the narrative shuttles forward; so, too, does any balanced or interesting picture of Capote.
The most important thing that Capote glosses over is the erotic attraction the writer felt for his subject, killer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). When we first see Perry, he’s got the quicksilver animal grace of a Jean Genet anti-hero, and Hoffman’s Capote reacts accordingly. But the film abandons this viewpoint, even though it would have humanized the man. The film should really be a gruesome love story between Capote and Perry, at least in the beginning. Imagine that: Capote lusting for his murderous quarry, even loving him, yet growing increasingly impatient for an ending to his book, which means the beloved’s death by hanging. It might almost be comic. Instead we have a portrait of years-long journalistic villainy that should please Capote’s still-living rival Gore Vidal, if no one else.