Bennett Miller’s Movie Plumbs Personal Tolls of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood
Truman Capote is in over his head. Six years previous he’d clipped a newspaper article about a quadruple homicide in a bucolic Kansas farm town, thinking it’d be the genesis of a fan-tas-tic new endeavor in prose journalism. Now, drunk and sobbing face down into a pillow, he’s got to say goodbye to death-row inmate Perry Smith, the wounded-eyed drifter who regarded Capote as his only amigo, who let Capote bleed him dry of information about that atrocious night in order to feed the author’s rapacious need to write a new book. Now Smith’s condemned to hang and Capote won’t answer his telegrams. It’s a wrenching, Rubiconian moment in Capote’s life, and Bennett Miller’s breathtaking movie Capote spares no punches in re-creating it, putting a capstone on a startling achievement by the first-time feature director.
Miller, a dark, slender man with patient eyes and a deliberate voice full of ellipses and semicolons, had attracted some modest attention with his 1998 documentary The Cruise, but since then he’d been biding his time directing commercials, patiently awaiting the script compelling enough to mark his return to movies. During this time, his lifelong friend, actor Dan Futterman, decided to write a screenplay. “I said, basically, ‘Good luck,’” Miller laughs. “I thought this would be another obligation to a friend to review their work and try to highlight the positive.”
Little did he know that his friend’s first draft of Capote would seduce him completely. “I read scripts that were sent to me that I thought a number of people could do well,” he says. “But when I read Dan’s script, and it always sounds arrogant, but when I read it, I said, ‘That’s mine.’ There’s a reason to do that movie. I could make a movie with this script that no one else would make.
“The most powerful thing about the script was the overall sense of the character [of Capote],” he continues. “Somehow communicating this dichotomy of his public and private personas—and how the film peels back the layers.”
When it’s suggested that Capote is almost a Heart of Darkness story, Miller’s eyebrows raise in a sudden flash of acknowledgement, the most mobile expression seen yet on his placid face. “Yes, absolutely,” he quickly agrees. “That’s always how I saw the movie. I saw it as one arc with a destiny involved, and a tragic destiny. It’s Capote moving towards what he thinks is the murder but it’s really himself. He’s discovering something horrible about himself. And by the time he realizes it, it’s too late to do anything about it.”
Rather than remaking In Cold Blood, Capote illuminates the novel’s backstory, following Capote (nailed with feathery, self-absorbed accuracy by Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he forms a quick, and co-dependent, bond with murderer/primary source Perry Smith (a formidable Clifton Collins Jr.), a relationship that soon illuminates the dark recesses of Capote’s own scarred heart. When the men meet for the first time, Smith is incarcerated in a cell installed in the sheriff’s wife’s kitchen, as if he were a windowsill canary that grew into something more savage. That image sounds like a director’s symbolic embroidery but, astonishingly, it’s historical truth. Wanting to keep the prisoners separate, the sheriff put Smith’s co-conspirator, Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), in the men’s penitentiary and the slighter Smith in the lone women’s cell. The absurd poetry of that scene—a man, in a cage, in a cheery middle-class kitchen—perfectly illustrates the easy balance between historical accuracy and visual poetry Miller’s movie deftly achieves.
“There’s many ways to be accurate,” Miller says. “We wanted to be right, but we also didn’t want it to be cliché”—that is, 1950s Kansas as one long moody sock hop, leaden with nostalgia. “We were both more concerned with a production design that communicates something tonally.”
The mood is set instantly by the movie’s spare palette of grim blues and greens, dry wheat tones and charcoal grays, as near-colorless and cold as a cloudless winter sky. Miller’s meticulous control of mood and atmosphere extends to replicating Richard Avedon’s stark, archetypal photos of the accused, shot on assignment from The New Yorker, the magazine where In Cold Blood would first be serialized. “A lot of what we re-created in the film is inspired by the tone of those photographs,” Miller says.
The dark power of the scene where Avedon photographs the murderers resonates like a small, perfect haiku. Hickock and Smith, befuddled by the attention (and feeling daintified by a fashion photographer’s gaze), crack jokes and cower before Avedon’s trademark white scrim. Used to law enforcement giving them orders, they comply when Avedon tells them to show their tattoos, peeling off their prison blues to expose hand-hammered crosses and panthers and roses on their naked skin, anonymous, notorious men uncertain of the role they’re to play in a world newly voracious for tragedy.
“It’s the birth of the modern era,” Miller says. “Everything you see on TV today is voyeuristic sponging off other’s miseries. It’s such a seminal moment in history. And Capote’s drawn to the wheat fields in this town in Kansas, that up until that moment had a relatively pure history, and here’s the outside world coming in and altering it forever . . . once you’re corrupted, you lose your innocence. You never get it back.”
Perhaps that’s what compelled Capote, Miller’s movie argues, to venture into his own Heartland of Darkness. “Capote’s forever in a struggle to reclaim something that was lost as a child,” Miller says. “I think that’s what brought him in, that it’s his destiny to find some way to have this essential experience of getting everything he ever wanted . . . and, in the process, destroying himself.”
During the course of filming, did Miller’s opinion of Capote change? “Yes,” he says. “What my opinion went from was a very sophisticated, in control, and wickedly talented guy to understanding what a deeply wounded and desperate person lay beneath this facade. It’s sort of the other side of über-achievement.”
The man behind the curtain of cocktail raconteur and the esteemed world of letters is protected from a fate as lonely and pathetic as Smith’s by the slim protection of a few published stories, like the archetypal man whose life is saved when the Bible in his pocket deflects a bullet. In Cold Blood proved to be Capote’s masterpiece, but he never completed another book. “But worse than that,” Miller rightly points out, “he lost his soul.”