dir: Bennett Miller
This flick wins my Academy Award, my giant, golden, suggestively-designed Oscar, for the most overrated flick and performance of 2005. There, I said it. And I’m not taking it back.
Reports from the film festivals were saying Phillip Seymour Hoffman was a lock on the Best Actor award months before the film was ever released, and who am I to argue. But, come on. Be serious.
In anticipation of seeing the film, I did a fair bit of homework. I read Capote’s book In Cold Blood, so I’d know what all the fuss was about. I also watched the excellent B&W film of the same name from 1967, directed by Richard Brooks, where, irony of ironies, Robert Blake played one of the killers.
So I was ready. Prepared. Primed. To be bored out of my fucking skull, it turns out.
The flick fails as a biography of Truman Capote because it’s annoying in its simplistic rendition of who he was and what motivated him, what meant anything to him apart from fame, and only covers the relevant years in a frustrating and empty manner. Sure, he was a preening, simpering queen who could turn a phrase and charm a lounge room with his anecdotes, but I can’t see from this flick why In Cold Blood captured America’s attention when they’d soon forgotten about the murders that inspired it, and why it started the reading public’s insatiable desire for true crime novels.
It is generally accepted that Capote started the true crime novel genre. The murders of the Clutters, a family in Kansas in 1959, made headlines for a while, but the crime itself was forgotten quickly. I know, from having read the novel and followed much of what transpired afterwards in the record, about how it has become so infamous subsequently, but I might be the only person, based on what the film’s makers came up with. I can’t see how anyone coming to the flick a Capote virgin could get any real sense of the man through this vastly overrated experience, or to be able to glean why his book retains its incredible role in modern American literature.
I watched this film in a packed cinema, full of people lured by ejaculatory reviews and critical plaudits, who fiddled and sighed throughout its interminable 114-minute length. That itself may have irritated me further, but there’s much substance here that I’m apparently not seeing. Much value to which mine eyes are blind.
The flick is pretty flat for me throughout, punctuated with only two scenes of any real meaning or interest. You see, as someone who recently read the facts and remembers much of the details to do with the case, seeing these details come up gratified me slightly, but I was hoping to learn a bit more than what I already knew. The film peddles such a safe line of ‘subtlety’ and apparent nuance so ineffable as to be non-existent, that I really have to wonder what it is that people are expected to take away from this.
If the point is supposed to be that the experience of writing this novel led to Capote turning into a rampaging egotist and thus a raging, self-destructive alcoholic, well, they don’t really make that case. The seeds are planted in such a way as to imply that he is both an alcoholic and completely self-centred before any of this shit hits his radar. He’s an arsehole from start to finish, before Perry Smith and Dick Hickock killed the Clutter family, and certainly after it.
Capote is never really a sympathetic character, nor does he need to be. But he needs to be believable. Though he certainly captured the mannerisms and affectations, down to the twitch of the upper lip and the hideous voice, I never really got into the head of Hoffman’s portrayal. He’s so detached and distanced from everything, never put into situations where anyone impacts upon him directly, never called upon to do anything too strenuous, so much so that, for a biopic about him, despite his presence in every scene, he seems to be an absence more than a presence. Passive-aggressive characters, on this level, are the harder to enjoy the better they are portrayed.
He seems, in fact, even more sociopathic than his subjects. A scene at the end of the film, depicting his emotional reaction to a ‘last drinks forever’ situation with the two killers, seems awfully false and contrived. We don’t really believe Capote gives two tinker’s dams about anyone, especially not these two criminal shmucks facing the gallows, who he knew would make him a household name upon their deaths.
His partner, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) and his best friend from childhood, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) are decently-acted but boring characters. Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, comes across as little more than a nag and a scold, constantly chiding him for his behaviour because she’s forced by dint of script requirement to always be bitching. I’m sure she had plenty of other hobbies apart from wearing mannish clothes.
The really interesting character, for my money, the one that is well-acted and deserved the plaudits over Hoffman’s showy role, is definitely Clifton Collins Jnr as Perry Smith. This is an enigmatic portrayal of an interesting but unsympathetic character. What’s funny, and perhaps not deliberate, is that he’s more sympathetic than Capote.
But it’s Capote’s story, apparently, so Smith remains a sullen plot device, little more. The best scene in the film, without doubt, involves Capote expressing to Smith just what a mote in god’s eye he really sees him as, but scenes like that are rare in the rest of this prestige, Oscar-baiting film.
The only other scene that really worked for me was at the premier of the film version of Harper Lee’s book, where it becomes vaguely clear that a drunken Capote either deeply envies Lee’s success, or just doesn’t care about anything to do with anyone else. I’m not sure; maybe it was just too subtle for me.
Perhaps I wasn’t in the mood for subtle. I wasn’t expecting or wanting histrionics, explosions or big speeches where someone gets that slow-building handclap. Or maybe this flick’s so subtle that it just wafted over or through my head. It’s certainly not a bad film, but I really think in a year or two people are going to watch this film and go ‘Huh? What the fuck kind of chrome were people huffing to make them go berserk over this?’
At the moment I look at Capote as one of those flicks where a bunch of critics at a film festival said “This is brilliant, awesome shit”, and a cavalcade of less secure hacks have said “Uh, yes, I also heartily endorse this service and / or product” because they didn’t want to seem lame. Nothing like jumping on a bandwagon to prove your individuality.
I’m not so interested or concerned that Capote disappeared up his own arse. That he never wrote another novel after this one is interesting, but it’s hardly illuminating in the scope of the flick. I wanted something which this flick didn’t deliver, so of course I’m going to be disappointed. But I don’t think my expectations of not being bored to the point of distraction were unreasonable.
I like Philip Seymour Hoffman, and have liked him in a lot of flicks which were crap but where he was good to great. I’m still in two minds about his work here. I just don’t see what other people are seeing in it. I really don’t.
6 situations in which I also know what the word ‘exacerbate’ means, and don’t need a preening peacock of a New Yorker writer to tell me so
“I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat.” – Perry Smith, Capote.