Midway through the astonishing new movie "Capote," the diminutive author contemplates his work in progress, "In Cold Blood," and intones: "Sometimes when I think how good my book can be, I can hardly breathe."
Philip Seymour Hoffman does much more than mimic (perfectly) the dainty whine and lizardly savoir faire of the man. Plenty of nightclub comics have already done that. His Truman Capote is a fully fleshed-out portrait that lays bare the creepiest recesses of the writer's psyche. I don't think I've ever seen another performance based on a famous artist that was as psychologically acute or troubling.
Scrupulously directed by Bennett Miller in his dramatic feature debut, and written by Dan Futterman, "Capote" wisely centers on the five years in Capote's life, 1959-1965, when he composed his landmark "nonfiction novel" about the murder of a rural Kansas family, the Clutters, by two drifters, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.). He shivers when he first reads about the unsolved murder in the back pages of The New York Times. Not even caring if the killers are caught, he seizes upon the story as his ticket to post- "Breakfast at Tiffany's" fame. Ever the spoiler, he wants to expose a ghastly wound within smalltown America. When the murderers are charged and imprisoned, he wheedles his way into their good graces with the grudging aid of his friend, novelist-to-be Harper Lee (in a first-rate performance by Catherine Keener). He develops, or pretends to develop, a sort of erotic fixation on Perry, who deludedly sees Capote as his savior. But Capote is interested only in the book, and the killers' repeated stays of execution threaten to throw a damper on his triumph: Without their deaths, his masterpiece has no finale.
Bennett and Futterman are putting forth a portrait of the artist as immoralist, and at times they seem to be equating Capote's behavior with the murders themselves - an assumption that only self-infatuated aesthetes could be foolish enough to harbor. (Perhaps this is why Collins's performance as Perry is made to carry so little threat). But more often they keep the focus right where it ought to be: On the personal betrayals that accompany Capote's ache for literary transcendence. The betrayals were necessary to create "In Cold Blood." This is why "Capote" is such an unsettlingly ambiguous experience.
That ambiguity is embodied in Hoffman's matchless performance. Part pasha, part genius, his Capote is an outsider on the inside. With his raised pinkies, baby-blue bathrobes, and Bergdorff scarves, it's easy to spot him as an intruder in the Kansas countryside. But Hoffman makes us aware of how spiritually isolated Capote was even in his beloved New York jet set. Wherever he found himself, he was a man immolating in his own slow flame. Grade: A
• Rated R for some violent images and brief strong language.