A famous critic once said that any work described as being based on a true story usually denotes misery and tragedy, a statement from which a cynic might conclude that most people would prefer to see suffering and empathize than witness happiness that cannot be theirs. Despite the prevalence of Schadenfreude, this is not quite the reason. What is contained in our soul is a sense of tragedy because conventional wisdom tells us we cannot live forever. And even before conventional wisdom became louder and uglier, every person of faith would occasionally walk the path of doubt and despair, and every person still wonders what is the worth of an existence in which we are destined to wither and fade. Those who are artistically inclined are beset by some of the most acute fears because their works will often not gain full recognition before their death. Instead, they must trust in the taste and acknowledgement of souls and minds that conventional wisdom informs them they can never know, which is a little like building a palace in the middle of a desert then forsaking that remote land forever. Artists will hesitate as to how much living and how much creating they should do – the line is entirely at the discretion of the individual who may put down a book to go out to a restaurant with company or simply decide yet again that his library is company enough. Some would even go so far as to aver that friends, people, other lives, can be mined and plagarized as brutally as any text. Which brings us to this film about other people's tragedies.
The story is well-known: on November 15, 1959, the Clutters, an affluent farming couple and their teenage son and daughter are found murdered in their Kansas home, all apparently shot at very close range. The news garners a modest backpage notice in the New York Times, but one that captures the attention and imagination of a thirty-five-year-old novelist by the name of Truman Capote (a spellbinding Philip Seymour Hoffman). A polished, squeaky ball of overdone gestures, ambition, and almost ruthless intelligence, Capote had written prolifically in the last decade, capped off by the 1958 publication of this novel which gained him a certain amount of fame and economic ease. Yet he had never been so inspired until he read the 300-word blurb on "a tragedy in Holcomb." He enlists his childhood friend and fellow author Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) to trek out to Kansas, a place clearly antithetical to his big city mores and desires to learn how such an event has affected the local population. Since the victims and the criminal investigation do not interest him as much as the emotions wafting through Holcomb, Capote does not make the best of first impressions on the policeman in charge, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper). Not that, of course, he cares what someone who has no literary taste thinks of him. When he visits the Clutter residence at sunset, it resembles a grim pagan temple, the coffins laid out like a shrine; then he decides to open one of the coffins and finds something so hideous it remains covered by a sheet. Such gore does not bother him as much as justify the eventfulness of what just transpired ("To see something so horrifying, it comforts me. Normal life falls away. But then again, I was never much for normal life"). Yet in time his culture and innate ability to sense what other people want to hear – regardless of his sincerity – grant him access to a host of details about what happened that dark day in November. And about half an hour into our film two suspects, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), are marched in silence into the local police station.
The primary downside of every true story, I suppose, is that its dénouement has little in the way of suspense. After the utilitarian prologue to the arrests, the film liberates itself from the austere plotting of a police procedural to focus on the mind that will transform the intended robbery and last-minute butchery of the Clutters into one of the more famous crimes in twentieth-century America. We are duly aware – from the openly homosexual Capote's gay-bashing and racist anecdote at a socialite gathering at the beginning of the film – that he will stop at nothing to become either the center of attention or the most famous writer in America. Ideally, of course, he would become both. A southerner by birth, Capote is nothing if a New York socialite by disposition: predatory, superficial, quick-witted, and more than occasionally nasty ("Nancy was your best friend?" Harper and Capote ask Laura Kinney, the teenager who found the bodies, as if interviewing her for her qualifications to report on the tragedy). Capote sets every scene with name-dropping, and the name he drops most frequently is his own. In an effort to prove his proximity to mere mortals, he relates that his mother died during the filming of Breakfast at Tiffany's, although the event is secondary to his long description of a bar where this actor and this director would go boozing every night. Like many a novelist he relishes the feelings of others, which he then challenges himself to describe. When Dewey shows pain at the death of his friend, Capote becomes alive with wondering what lies behind that pain, imagining the whole relationship from start to bloody end. Were Capote just even remotely sincere about his pleas for humaneness, we would be more likely to believe that he cared about something outside of his own diminutive frame. But he is never sincere. Even when he is about to read from his new book to an adoring New York audience, he states his name and then snickers as if he were a clever joke only understood by himself, his intellect realizing that while a talented man with almost total recall and a suppleness to his prose, as a human being he is an insufferable fraud. And he is most egregiously fraudulent with the half-Cherokee prisoner called Perry Smith.
You may smile at the political convenience of having Smith be half-Indian although, we recall, this is no conceit of fiction but a true story. Smith is young, lean, and well-read; he is also deranged in ways that only become evident towards the end of the film. Capote investigates Smith, his missing parents, his orphanage, the suicides of his siblings, his tendency to use big words, his jealousy of Hickock's non-existent relationship with the effeminate writer, his journals, his self-portrait in charcoal, his mother who when alive was a Cherokee alcoholic. In Capote's case, his mother was a slut and in this troubled killer he sees himself, as well as an excuse for the irreverence and spite of his own life. "If I don't understand you," he tells Smith, "the world will see you as a monster and I don't want that." He finds Smith attractive and has him and Hickock pose for a top fashion photographer, sometimes with himself on the side as if he were a scientist with his two prize specimens. He pontificates by claiming that this book was the one he was always meant to write, supporting his grandeur with truisms such as "there are two worlds: the quiet, conservative life and the world of those two men." Yet we see through his guise and so does everyone else, so why does he become a star? The real Capote's desire was to be the best, which is the desire perhaps of every writer worth his salt; it is how this desire manifests itself that will reflect the author's character. Some authors see themselves as victims or outsiders, and Capote was in every possible facet of his true self an outsider, and his alleged revolution, the "nonfiction novel," was intended to restart time with him as the almighty creator. But the nonfiction novel is essentially how we deal with everyone: we take the basic facts and extrapolate their hidden meanings. We guess at gestures, words, and sensations and try to picture what motivates human decisions. So when Capote tells Dewey his book about the Kansas killers will be titled In Cold Blood, Dewey responds: "Does that refer to the crime or the fact you're still talking to them?" And for once Capote seems as if he has not considered that particular reading.