United Artists
Directed by Bennett Miller
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Clifton Collins Jr.
Rated R

His novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s was banned in the little town of Holcomb, Kansas, when Truman Capote went there in late 1959 to investigate the brutal murders of a local family. It’s not a fact that Capote makes a big deal out of — it’s just slipped in sideways in an interesting revelation about one of the locals — but it’s a tidbit that keeps niggling at the back of my mind. The irony of it: Capote was so moved by the short article in The New York Times about the murders that he went to Holcomb before the crime was even solved, determined to write about the impact the killings had on the close-knit town … a town that had already decided he was a peddler of bad influence and inappropriate attitudes.

Except that makes the fine folk of Holcomb sound like unsophisticated bigots or, at best, rubes, and they aren’t at all. They’re good, decent people — and not in the way that’s a euphemism for “unsophisticated bigots or, at best, rubes,” either. (This may be entirely due to yet another supernaturally astonishing performance by Chris Cooper, as Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey, who speaks volumes of rage and grief and disdain with the smallest quirk of his lips or the tiniest shrug of his shoulders.) So the banned-book thing becomes more about knee-jerk reactions and how even good people misunderstand one another, perhaps even consciously not wanting to have any new information alter our comfortable prejudices. That even becomes, in one scene, the greatest praise one citizen of Holcomb can offer regarding Capote and his pal Harper Lee (the always fabulous Catherine Keener): “They’re good people.”

But Capote isn’t about the good people of Holcomb or even about the murders that shattered the town — not really. It’s about — although this only slowly becomes clear — Truman Capote’s capacity for self-deception. Capote is at first “merely” a darkly engaging portrait of a great American oddball, one that makes a point of agreeing with Capote himself, that he has been misjudged by those around him his whole life. Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t impersonate Capote: he embodies the author so intimately that there is no artifice or actorly showiness in the Capote-isms: the lisping, the dapperness. Mostly, though, we see in Capote’s interactions with the people of Holcomb and with the killers what a tough son of a bitch he really is, how he uses the graciousness on his surface to coax people into telling him what he wants to know.

Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Dan Futterman, working from a book by Gerald Clarke, brilliantly skitter around the edges of the crime: this is not a courtroom drama or an apology for the criminals — though some of the people of Holcomb clearly fear that’s the direction Capote is heading in with his book. As the film settles into its grimly riveting unpeeling of Capote’s psyche, scenes that could have been about actually getting answers to mysteries — like, just why the hell did the killers do what they did, anyway? — only raise intriguing questions, like, what is Capote’s real motive in befriending one of the murderers, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.)? Is it a strange infatuation? Is it a genuine desire to see justice done? Or is the writer just a user, excavating this “goldmine” for a great story?

The questions are never answered, and perhaps never could be any more than the question of whether Capote is selfish. He certainly behaves rather abominably at points to Harper and to his lover, writer Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood), abandoning them for his work even as they beg for his attention. Maybe great artists must be selfish, and great art is necessarily the result of selfishness?

There are no answers to be found in Capote, except — maybe — in the greedy glittering of Hoffman’s eyes.