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Kill & tell 

Bennett Miller's outside-the-box biopic goes deep

While some directors continue to hold on to the soup-to-nuts approach to biography, a small trend is growing for films that masticate a small portion of a life, allowing it to illuminate the larger picture of a personality.

An upcoming biography of seminal documentary photographer Diane Arbus, Fur, promises to take that intuit-the-macro-from-the-micro approach, and Capote is another one of these promising new cinematic navel-gazers. Focusing on a small section of the life of helium-voiced, light-in-his-loafers writer Truman Capote yields enormous payoffs in Bennett Miller's Capote. It moves beyond one man to show a vital stage in American literary history, when the publication of Capote's best-selling In Cold Blood heralded a new age of writers crafting true stories with the page-turning artfulness of fiction.

Capote opens in 1959 with Capote's literary reputation well established through his novels Other Voices, Other Rooms and Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The film is a glimpse of an almost unimaginable time when a career in arts and letters brought cocktail party glamour and face time with celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, a time when everyone from prison inmates to sheriff's wives to the New York literati read the same novels.

Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays the Louisiana-born, Alabama-bred literary peacock Truman Capote, who stands in the limelight of New York's literary scene like Scarlett O'Hara at her Tara barbecue, basking in the adulation of writers and fans.

Hoffman's assumption of Capote's affected mannerisms -- the loose-limbed gestures, the shrill, decadently indolent voice -- is as initially disconcerting and distracting as the man he impersonates. But with time, the force of screenwriter Dan Futterman's tale, adapted from Gerald Clarke's 1988 biography of Capote, allows you to sink into a mesmerizing tale.

Capote reads a short newspaper article about the slaughter of a Kansas farm family -- mother, father and their two teenage children -- and is excited enough by the story to flee to the scene of the crime, Holcomb, Kan., with his trusty girl companion and childhood friend, writer Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener, who proves yet again to be a compelling, chameleon-like actress). Amid the corn-fed folk, Lee is a kind of beard and buffer -- able to approach the locals and pump them for information without Capote's nancy-fied ways spooking them.

When the killers are arrested, Capote's attention shifts from the law-abiders and townsfolk to the symbolic rebels, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins) and Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino), the human flotsam whose rotten childhoods and bad luck transformed them into rotten adults.

Capote suggests that the writer finds more affinity for the glum, crippled Smith and the sneering, sexed-up Hickock than he does their middle-American prey. A relationship, often more like a romance, develops between Capote and the glowering, wet-eyed Hickock, another literary believer eager to have his story told and finally get some attention and affection. Capote needs details for his novel and Smith needs someone to listen.

The key difference is that only one will profit from the telling of the tale.

The only thing Bennett Miller's previous film, The Cruise -- the documentary of eccentric New York City tour guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch -- may have in common with this one is its eccentric, verbally gifted outsider.

Miller's second film is a morally complex and incisive look at not only the literary significance of In Cold Blood, but a penetrating observation of the devil's pact made between writers and their subjects.

Capote presents writing as both narcissistic and tragic. Capote connects on the deepest level with Smith, who confesses all in prolonged jailhouse visits, and Capote sees a soulmate in the killer's miserable childhood. But like an alcoholic dying for his next drink, Capote can barely concentrate on the story for want of the next sip.

Hoffman, who has certainly played his share of doughy misanthropes, brings dimension and heart to a tale that in another's hands could have pilloried this writer as a user and a manipulator. Capote is those things, but more, too. His evolving relationship with Smith becomes a form of psychological torture. The longer Smith's legal appeals allow him to evade the hangman's noose, the longer Capote will be denied the details of the murders that will end his book. Trapped in a kind of deathwatch -- both craving Smith's death for his story's end and fearing it -- Capote turns to the classic literary dope of a stiff drink. Capote suggests that In Cold Blood was both the making, and the end, of Capote.

Few films have ever made writing so complex, such a noble and brave vocation, but also such a tragic, lonely one.

Capote is about writing as a kind of sociopathy. The unhealthy mutual dependency that can flow between a writer and his or her subject is at the heart of a film as much about the psychological nuances of writing as it is about Capote.

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