Judge Ryan Keefer rejoices, for in Capote, the world finally realized something that Verdict readers have known for quite some time: Philip Seymour Hoffman is actually a brilliant actor!
Our review of Capote / In Cold Blood (Blu-Ray), published February 11th, 2009, is also available.
Famed author Truman Capote befriends two murderers while researching his celebrated book, "In Cold Blood"—and finds himself changed to the core.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Magnolia, Happiness) has long been regarded as a top notch character actor who can be counted on for an engaging performance, regardless of the film. So when he was picked as the title role in 2005's Capote, he submerged himself into the life of the eccentric and charismatic writer as Capote was researching and writing the classic novel In Cold Blood. Hoffman did such a good job in fact, that he was nominated for and won a bunch of awards, culminating in a recent Best Actor Oscar win. Are Hoffman's and Capote's praise and awards justified?
Facts of the Case
In 1959, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino, National Treasure) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr., Traffic) strolled into the home of Herbert Clutter and his family, looking for a safe which they heard contained $10,000. When the safe could not be found, Hickock and Smith brutally murdered the family and fled. The story was picked up by the news services and reported in newspapers across America, where successful author Truman Capote (Hoffman) found the story and informed his publisher on his desire to cover the story in preparation for his new novel that helped define the "true crime" (or more recognizably, the "non-fiction novel") literary genre.
Capote and his traveling companion Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich) went by train to Kansas. Once there, Capote found some initial resistance by the local authorities, but the pair eventually managed to befriend police detective Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper, Adaptation.), who helped get their collective foot in the door with various law personnel, giving Capote access to interview Hickock and Smith upon their capture. Over the course of the novel, Capote's original intent to glamorize the murders was transformed from "another celebrity legal cause" to one that struck Capote on a deep personal level. The crimes occurred in 1959; the book would not be published until 1966. Despite the success of the book, the work Capote put into it had become such a personal drain that he began drinking heavily. He did not finish another novel and died in 1984 at the age of 59.
Let's get the obvious out of the way; Hoffman's lispy speech inflection is a little bit surprising at first, but then (like his performance) you gradually accept it without reservation. In the supplemental material, where archived footage of Capote is included, you'll notice just how spot on Hoffman's interpretation is. And for such a small film, Capote has quite a list of character actors behind it. Aside from the Oscar-winning Cooper, you've got proven talents in Hoffman and Keener, and I haven't even listed Bruce Greenwood (The Sweet Hereafter) or Bob Balaban (Best in Show), both of whom provide solid supporting roles in Capote's life as his companion and publisher, respectively. It's been written that Keener was underutilized in this film, but she provides strength alongside Capote when he needs it. The fact that Lee went onto write "To Kill a Mockingbird" is a unique piece of trivia and was incorporated into this film. But as one of the killers, Collins' performance is outstanding. He has a face that really draws you into the possibility that he may be innocent, and if Collins is anything like Smith was, then it's easy to understand why Capote was drawn to him like he was. Smith and Capote shared bad childhoods in two different corners of the country, and Capote fully understood that if it wasn't for the grace of God Capote could have been holed up in a cell down the hall from Hickock and Smith. Capote's last visit to Hickock and Smith (despite Hoffman's initial resistance) was a tearful one; he has gone through the ringer and come out the other side forever changed. His knack for making friends had finally caught up to him, as Smith's recollections of the night haunted him until his death.
With such a small film, there's quite an abundance of supplemental material to go over. There's a documentary on Capote, entitled "Answered Prayers," which discusses the life of the author. Hoffman, Capote biographer Stanley Clarke (whose book Futterman's script was based on), and others cover the man and his intricacies. Clarke mentions how Capote was able to make his subject the most important person in the world when they were interviewed, which is yet another thing that Hoffman was able to capture. Clarke is able to recall how Capote managed to endear himself to the town. At six minutes, to call this a documentary is a little bit generous, but it's good viewing. The featurettes cover everything from beginning to end, and Hoffman describes what interested him most about the role. He was so immersed in the role that he rehearsed for six months prior to filming. At a very leisurely pace, the cast, production and filming is all covered rather well, and it's a nice look at the production, with contributions from most of the significant cast and crew from casting to performances to production intents and designs. Hoffman and Director Bennett Miller join forces for a commentary that is fairly low key and has quite a bit of technical information in it, along with the usual mutual admiration society for the cast. Miller and cinematographer Adam Kimmel are on a second commentary that's a little more jocular and fun, but it is more focused on the production and the behind the scenes aspects of the show. Overall, both tracks were a little bit disappointing.
The extras are a little bit hollow and unfulfilling, but Capote is a compelling story, featuring a virtuoso performance by Hoffman and the cast, including an underrated turn by Collins as Perry Smith. There is no bad apple in the bunch, and Capote is well justified on many critics' Top 10 of 2005 lists. Smartly packaged by some retailers as a companion to the outstanding film that is based on Capote's novel, this is an excellent supplement.
Unlike Hickock and Smith, Capote is found not guilty, and Hoffman's performance is well-deserving of all the awards it earned last year.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Bennett Miller and Philip Seymour Hoffman
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