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Rated 3.02 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Capote Cornered
by Jeffrey Chen

It's difficult to talk about Capote without centering on Philip Seymour Hoffman's film-driving performance. The skillful actor has found himself playing mostly supporting roles in an impressive group of artistically-slanted movies, but his recent ventures into leading roles have flown largely under the radar. Capote will now not only make it impossible to ignore him as a leading man, it may well catapult him toward numerous year-end acting awards.

Yes, what you've heard is true -- Hoffman becomes absorbed in one of those transformative roles that often have a lock on the admiration of viewers everywhere. He plays the idiosyncratic Truman Capote, famous author and socialite of the 1950s and '60s. He's so ensconced in the part that the performance runs the risk of feeling like an impersonation or a caricature, but he is able to avoid that because the character as written for the movie is presented with realistic conflicts that demand a level of depth Hoffman is thankfully able to deliver.

Capote itself is not a conventional biopic, thank goodness. Instead, it focuses on the part of Capote's life spent researching the material for his now-famous book, In Cold Blood, a "non-fiction novel" about two murderers who killed a family of four in a small Kansas town. In the process, Capote befriends one of the imprisoned convicts, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.) in order to extract as much of his personal perspective about the killings as possible. It's a relationship forged in dishonesty -- Capote does his best to postpone Perry's execution as long as he doesn't have all the information he needs yet, but he does such a good job gaining Perry's trust that Perry believes he has a friend who will fight for his life.

This is good drama, as it mines one of man's darkest moral dilemmas -- that of gaining and using another's trust for mostly selfish motivations. Much of the complication comes not only from guilt by the perpetrator, but also by the genuine feelings of concern and empathy that he develops and can't easily reconcile with his objective. That the movie decides to place all this upon Truman Capote, however, seems  questionable. Capote is presented here, flaws and all, as someone rather despicable. The anguish he suffers at the results of his decisions emerges as our only glimpse of his potential redemption.

Is such a man even worthy of redemption? And no matter what the answer is to that, why use Capote to illustrate it? The film's limited scope on his life, though praiseworthy in its attempt to avoid being just another life story, also develops a weakness in that the character is created in a container within which we see nothing but a creature of pride who is primed for a fall. Whether or not the real man was really this way, the movie feels as if it's picking on one aspect of him -- watching it gave me the uncomfortable notion that Capote was being exploited for captivating drama similar to the way he treated  Perry Smith.

The movie's rather portentous dreariness, an atmosphere marked by documentary-style filming, a contemplative piano score, and a general sense of detachment added to the discomfort. Although the style is effectively dark, it's something of a chore to sit through a movie that rolls itself from one scene to the next not due to the actions of its characters but because of the inconspicuous passage of time.

Much of the movie is spent waiting for the next non-event to happen while watching Capote unravel emotionally. Hoffman is able to make much of it compelling, while the drama itself teeters between feeling fascinating and feeling dense. A quiet and introspective movie, Capote nonetheless offers an outsized performance as its prize attraction, something worth a look all on its own.

(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "R" for some violent images and brief strong language.)

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