Making a film about In Cold Blood is a tricky thing. The book was one the first widely read police procedurals, and it works methodically from the murder of a Kansas family through the apprehension of the killers up until the guilty parties are hung from a noose in prison. But you can't tell that story today and have it's meaning be clear because the context now is so different from the context in which the book was released. After decades of shows like Law & Order the police procedural is so firmly established as a genre that it's standard features seem like cliches, but you can't treat In Cold Blood in that stereotypical way; that wouldn't be fair to the historical nature of the book.

But on the other hand you have to be careful abut how much context you put into the story or else you'll end up "finger worshipping". Finger worshipping is when someone is trying to point out something important and instead of looking at where the finger is pointing the audience gets bogged down in a debate about the finger itself. It happens a lot in this media saturated modern age, where every outrage is followed by a series of editorials which lead to more editorials until at some point we're just discussing the discussion and we've lost sight of the problem. In this case the worry is that if there's too much of a focus on how In Cold Blood was written we would lose sight of why people cared about the book in the first place.

The fact that this movie is called Capote and not In Cold Blood is the first sign that it is going to lean more heavily towards the second option. Indeed, the actual contents of the book make up a small fraction of the movie's running time, with major characters associated with the case being completely absent. To a certain extent I can see the appeal of that decision because Truman Capote was an interesting individual and the contrast between this effete cosmopolitan New Yorker and these violent criminals is compelling. But at the same time, I'm not satisfied with the end result.

The plain prose of In Cold Blood puts you in direct confrontation with a brutal crime, and the bluntness of the act demands that the reader reckon with hard questions about life. The movie, however, doesn't get at those questions very well because it puts the viewer at a remove by asking them to be in Capote's shoes. Capote spends much of the movie's running time being troubled that he's become friends with a murderer instead of being troubled by the murders himself, a discrepancy that a disgusted Sheriff points out to him at one point. It's not that there isn't an ethical quandary to be explored in Capote's situation, it's just that the "should I be friends with a murderer?" question that Capote asks himself is less thorny than the "what barbarity is man capable of?" problem that a reader of In Cold Blood is facing. Yes, both of them explore the limits of forgiveness, but the larger issue is both more universally applicable and more existentially worrisome.

Which is not to say that the film is completely undeserving of the recognition it got when it came out; Phillip Seymour Hoffman was a great actor and he is great as Capote. Furthermore, I do understand that introducing his personality to the story adds flavor and context. It's just that I think that focusing exclusively on his quirks at the expense of exploring the case itself shortchanges the man's work and to some extent the viewer. Capote the man was trying to point out something troubling, but Capote the film can't see where he was pointing because it's so wrapped up in looking at his finger.

Winner: The Cat

Capote on IMDB