The shallow but obvious first thing that everyone notes about Capote: yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman really is that good. It’s easy to assume that (a la Jamie Foxx in Ray), he’s just playing a really great impersonation of a famous person, especially given that Truman Capote is such a caricature already. But the reality is nothing like that. Hoffman earns the role, using the familiar trappings – the mincing, the voice – as a launching point to create a very precise character, and I do mean character in the best sense: the film is no biopic, so this isn’t a “cram the facts into two hours” story, but a very dramatic telling of a man with little humanity become a man with no humanity in the service of Art.
The film tells the story of the writing of In Cold Blood, focusing on the increasing obsession Capote felt for Perry Smith, one of the two killers in the murder case that book details. The tension in the film is in the conflict between Capote’s interest in Smith as a person, and the detachment he feels towards Smith as a literary subject.
In fact, Capote is detached from everyone and everything – he barely notices when his good friend Harper Lee publishes To Kill a Mockingbird, and he totally disregards his lover Jack’s attempts to write a novel. Instead, he focuses ever more intently on finishing his book, his great revolutionary work of American letters. And in so doing, turns into something kind of monstrous.
There’s not much to say about it beyond a plot description, because this is a very script-centered film. It lives and dies on Hoffman’s performance, which is superb. But all the director, cinematographer, editor, etc. have to do is stay out of the way, which they do with admirable humility.