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On Nov. 14, 1959, four members of the Clutter family in rural Holcomb, Kan., are brutally murdered. Thousands of miles away in New York City, acclaimed and eccentric writer Truman Capote (author of Breakfast at Tiffany's) reads a short summary of the crime in The New York Times and is spellbound by its macabre details. Immediately, he decides the story will be the subject of his next article for The New Yorker and heads for Kansas (accompanied by his close friend and fellow novelist, Nelle Harper Lee).
With Harper Lee's help, Capote ingratiates himself into the community and begins to gather the stories of those who knew the family. The writer's research is barely underway when Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey gets word that the two killers—Perry Smith and Richard Hickock—have been caught. Capote quickly initiates what becomes a close, yet twisted, "friendship" with Perry Smith.
Smith's and Hickock's summary convictions, death sentences and subsequent transfers to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth don't deter Capote's passionate, personal and often unethical pursuit of the story of what happened in Holcomb. Along the way, his article morphs into a book which he titles In Cold Blood, a "nonfiction novel," the publication of which Capote believes will revolutionize the writing world. But he can't finish his book without the grisly details of the murder, details Smith remains reluctant to divulge as long as his case is under appeal.
Despite the concerns of Capote's homosexual partner in New York and of Harper Lee, Capote's very soul slowly becomes entangled with Smith's as the criminal's date with the gallows draws near.
Capote concludes with the epigraph to the writer's last and unfinished book, a quote from the Catholic mystic Teresa of Avila: "More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones." Over the course of the movie, Capote's life illustrates this point. He gets exactly what he wants, but it comes at the cost of his humanity. We're told that he never finished another book and that he died as an alcoholic 19 years later. As such, Capote serves as a cautionary Faustian tale about the danger of selling your soul to achieve fame and acclaim.
On several occasions, Capote's friends try to break through the self-serving, narcissistic shell he's constructed to protect himself and to justify his actions. When he decides to hire a lawyer for the murderers, his motivation is keeping them alive long enough to get the story. His lover, Jack Dunphy, warns, "Be careful what you do to get what you want." Likewise, Harper Lee consistently refuses to be sucked into Capote's emotional manipulation. Near the end of the film, he seeks to assuage his conscience by telling his friend, "There wasn't anything I could do to save them." But Harper Lee will have none of that, and refuses to shrink from delivering the brutal truth. She responds, "Maybe not. The fact is, you didn't want to." Her willingness to see facts as facts contrasts with the web of deceit Capote spins to accomplish his goals.
A portrait of Jesus hanging on a wall in the Clutters' home is shown twice. The second time, it's illuminated by a shotgun blast while one of the family members is being murdered—perhaps implying that God sees the horrible crime taking place. At Smith's execution, a priest recites portions of Psalm 23 and the Lord's Prayer. The Dewey family prays before meals. Hickock has a tattoo of a cross on his chest with the word peace written across it.
It's made known that Capote lives with Dunphy. Perry tells Capote that he talked Hickock out of raping Clutters' daughter.
Late in the film, family patriarch Herbert Clutter is briefly shown bleeding and convulsing on the floor after his throat is slashed. Muzzle flashes inform us that the other three family members have been killed. Still photographs from Alvin Dewey's investigation show the victims' bodies and various bloodstains on the walls and in their beds. Perry's execution by hanging is shown in its entirety.
Crude or Profane Language
Instances of relatively sparse obscenity in this film include one use of the f-word (in a sexual context), one of "a--" and one specific reference to Capote's anatomy. A half-dozen references to God or Jesus are profane, including a couple instances of "g--d--n."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Social drinking and smoking are the norm for virtually every character in the film. Capote appears to be a bit tipsy at a party.
Other Negative Elements
Capote's numerous character flaws are so pronounced that they seem to be more illustration of what not to do than invitation to "do likewise." Still, a few of them should be noted here: His pursuit of his story incites him to lie, exaggerate and manipulate his interview subjects. He refuses to tell Smith the title of his book and lies about his progress, for example. He bribes a prison warden with cash to secure unlimited access to Perry. We also learn that he sends "trashy" books and pornography to Hickock (these are not shown).
Few films I've seen have realistically depicted a man of such destructive selfishness with as much precision as Capote does. It deftly details how different motivations swirl within the human heart and blind us to our own wickedness if we don't listen to those who know us best (something Capote steadfastly refuses to do).
It's not an enjoyable film, per se, but it did cause me to think about how I treat people in my own life. How often am I, too, so blinded by my own goals and ambitions—whatever they may be—that I'm unable to admit I'm using people to achieve them? That's the question I pondered as I sat watching the end credits slowly scroll up toward the ceiling.
One of the other issues I was thinking about was the film's treatment of homosexuality. Perhaps it's non-treatment would be a better way to describe it. Capote deals with its leading man's homosexuality simply as background information. It neither offers an apology for his sexual choices nor criticizes them. Instead, Capote's live-in relationship with a fellow writer is simply treated as a fact of the story, and one that the film does not dwell upon or sensationalize. We see no affection shared between the men, not even an embrace. We certainly don't witness the kind of graphic depiction of homosexual behavior glamorized and romanticized in fellow Oscar nominee Brokeback Mountain.
Capote asks substantial questions about what it means to be a good friend to someone in need. Truman Capote almost convinces himself that he's just such a friend to Perry Smith. But in the process he rejects the wisdom of his friends, who genuinely want him to face the truth about his deeply flawed motivations. We clearly see that his brilliant writing career alone is not enough to offset the damage that his self-centered choices have done to his soul. Capote, then, is an eloquently disturbing, thought-provoking (briefly violent and vulgar) portrait of an emotional vampire, a tragic figure whose lying, self-absorption and manipulation make him seem a more monstrous onscreen character than the murderers he investigates.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote; Catherine Keener as Nelle Harper Lee; Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith; Mark Pellegrino as Richard Hickock; Bruce Greenwood as Jack Dunphy; Chris Cooper as Alvin Dewey
Sony Pictures Classics