The Daily Stream: In Capote, The Late, Great Philip Seymour Hoffman Gives New Meaning To The Phrase 'In Cold Blood'

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Capote"

Where You Can Stream It: AMC+

The Pitch: "Capote" is not a biopic in the traditional sense. Instead, it focuses on the six-year period in which the novelist Truman Capote was consumed by his true-crime masterwork, "In Cold Blood," based on the slayings of a Kansas family at the hands of two drifters — one of whom he befriends.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won an Oscar for his performance, adopts horn-rimmed glasses and a nasal lisp, disappearing into the role of Capote. He has a different bearing here than he did in "The Master," yet he's still a cultish figure: the center of attention at parties, where he's surrounded by hangers-on who laugh at his every joke.

This character, his Capote, is low-key flamboyant — "the effete New York intellectual," as Oscar host Jon Stewart called him. But it's in those somber moments when the man behind the public persona begins to unravel that "Capote" plumbs imitation for some depth of characterization, which surpasses what you might see in other formulaic biopics.

There's a new documentary, "The Capote Tapes," in theaters now and headed to digital platforms on October 26, 2021. Director Bennett Miller started his own career with a documentary before crossing over into dramas with "Capote." It was the gateway for him to "Moneyball" and "Foxcatcher," and a career crossroads for Hoffman as a thespian, now operating on the highest level.

Why It's Essential Viewing

Even before he died in 1984, Capote called "Answered Prayers" (the focus of the aforementioned "Capote Tapes") his "posthumous novel," saying: "Either I'm going to kill it, or it's going to kill me." Miller's film, "Capote," posits that the author was on a slow descent, which started much sooner, with "In Cold Blood."

As if to hasten his descent, the film looks and feels bleak and chilly. Miller and cinematographer Adam Kimmel made a conscious decision not to use certain colors. This gives "Capote" a washed-out, desaturated timber, which is complemented by the confinement of the prison cell where Capote spends time getting to know the killer, Perry Smith. Clifton Collins, Jr. takes over the role of Smith, first played by actor and real-life murder suspect, Robert Blake, in the 1967 black-and-white film adaptation of "In Cold Blood."

Underestimated because of his sexuality ("the way he is, the way he talks"), Hoffman's Capote is, from the very beginning, portrayed as someone who is able to disarm and charm others, particularly those who might be useful to him as a writer. At first, he comes to Kansas with the intent of writing a story about the community's reaction to the murders.

The local law enforcement, led by Chris Cooper's K.B.I. detective, Alvin Dewey, is initially leery of this outsider. But eventually, through his wife, Marie (Amy Ryan), Dewey comes to entertain Capote and his childhood friend/traveling companion, Harper Lee, as dinner guests. Catherine Keener imbues Lee, the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," with a sense of decency that will provide a foil for Capote's moral collapse later in the film.

That Title, "In Cold Blood"

As Capote regales the Deweys with stories of John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, one can see the wheels turning in his eyes. Once the killers are caught and he gains entrance to the prison — bribing the warden to obtain unlimited visitation rights — the couple disappears from the movie almost entirely, having outlived their usefulness to him. When Dewey does pop up again, and Capote shares the new title for his book, "In Cold Blood," the lawman fires back with the pointed question, "And that refers to the crime or the fact that you're still talking to the criminals?"

For the purposes of this character study, it would seem to be the latter. Dan Futterman's script pulls no punches in its examination of Capote's motives, which are purely selfish and utilitarian. Even when Capote gets Smith and his accomplice, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), a fresh lawyer to work on their appeal, he admits to Smith, "It's as much for me as for anyone. I couldn't bear the thought of losing you so soon."

The real reason for that, of course, is that he needs to keep them alive just long enough to get Smith to describe the night of the Clutter family murders. Ruthless in his pursuit of this information, Capote engages in selective honesty and even resorts to blatantly lying about things to Smith, his "goldmine," to get what he wants. With the book all but finished, he does a preliminary reading for a packed audience, but conceals the fact that he has made any progress whatsoever from Smith, saying he's barely written a word.

The Cold-Blooded Writer

Capote tells his rapt retinue, "I find autobiographical stories, at this juncture of my life, to be quite boring." However, in the conversation arena, where he has 94% recall, he offers pieces of himself to win trust.

On the one hand, Smith is someone with whom Capote genuinely identifies, and seems to care about, to the extent that it suits his agenda. On the other hand, all Capote really cares about is his novel, and as long as Smith and Hickock are alive, it will have no ending. This mercenary pursuit of a story at the expense of human relationships proves to be his undoing. Once he has milked Smith for what he wants, he goes back to living his life, with his betrayal of Smith's trust eating away at him from inside.

Even at the end, when Smith and Hickock are awaiting death, Capote's tearful goodbye is tainted by the falsehood that he "did all he could." Within the fictionalized construct of this film, it's a fitting epithet that Capote — forced to confront his own cold-bloodedness as a careerist writer — was left a shell of a man after this and never finished another novel.

The biopic genre hasn't been the same since "Walk Hard" skewered it, but "Capote" actually hit right before that, the same year as "Walk the Line." That movie earned Joaquin Phoenix a competing Best Actor nom, and when he and Hoffman appeared together in "The Master," the collision of talents led to another unforgettable film.

As an unflinching portrayal of a talented yet flawed manipulator, "Capote" leaves a haunting afterimage that will bore deeper into your head the more you think about it. "In Cold Blood," indeed.