For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Mark, 8:36

Most wretched men are cradled into poetry by wrong
They learn in suffering what they teach in song.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Julian and Maddalo’

There comes a point, I think, in every artist’s life, where he / she must ask the question: Would I rather be a better artist, or a better human being? This is the essence of the Faustian bargain, the idea that the creation of a truly great work of art may often require the opening of one’s heart to all sorts of daemons, all forms of evil and misery. Plath, Lowell, Van Gogh – the list of tortured geniuses, of men and women whose creations derive their unique and burning power from the heart’s blood of their creator’s misery, is virtually endless. Is the suffering worth it? That is a question no one, not even the artist, can ever truly hope to answer.

But what if the suffering is not one’s own? What if the artist were to use the suffering of others, were to exploit the misery he sees around him to create a touching and wonderful masterpiece? Is this exploitation? Or merely opportunism? Or perhaps even a sacrifice worth making? If we are willing to let millions of people die and suffer every year in the name of religion and politics and nationhood, surely a few additional sacrifices for the sake of art cannot be baulked at?

This is the ethical dilemma that lies at the heart of the new film, Capote. The movie opens in 1959 when Capote, having published Breakfast at Tiffany’s a year ago, was the darling of Manhattan’s social world, the ultimate literary insider. What follows is an intense and faithful [1] portrayal of the five years that followed, in which Capote wrote the book that made him a legend – In Cold Blood.

What has always puzzled me about the Capote legend is why he chose to do it. Why would a man like Capote, a New York socialite, a writer of delightful, twinkling prose about the Manhattan social scene, suddenly decide to write a ‘non-fiction’ novel about a bloody homicide that takes place in the middle of Kansas? How does Holly Golightly lead to Perry Smith?

This is a question the movie highlights, but never really answers. Watching Capote first arrive in Kansas, observing his obvious alienation from everything around him, you cannot help wonder about his motivation – but the closest the movie comes to providing a clue to his reasons is in a scene where he and Harper Lee are interviewing a young girl about the murder and Capote suddenly starts to talk about how all his life people have thought they’d got him figured out because of the way he is and the way he talks – and that they’ve always got him wrong. Is the writing of In Cold Blood a reassertion of independence for Capote, a refusal to be classified, to be taken for granted? Has Capote been so successful in making himself an insider to the Manhattan cocktail circuit that he now feels the need to set himself apart from it, become an outsider again, assert the difference between himself and everyone else? Or is it just the whim of a talented writer, who, bored with the track he has been following so far, now wants to branch out into something completely different?

The movie never really attempts to answer any of these questions. What it does do, admirably, is explore the ethical choices Capote made in writing In Cold Blood, and, to a lesser extent, the implications these had for his future life. What emerges most strongly from the movie is a portrait of a deeply flawed human being, a writer so completely engrossed in his art, so entirely self-obsessed, as to be almost inhuman. Subtly at first, and then explicitly, Capote is ruthless and self-serving, a master of emotional blackmail who uses the power of his words and his willingness to flaunt his own vulnerability to manipulate other people into giving him what he wants. There is something almost admirable about the way Capote does this – his instinct for the right levers, his impeccable timing, his bloodhound-like nose for a story – all these are what, in the final analysis make In Cold Blood possible (along, of course, with Capote’s undeniable talent as a writer). But the movie is quick to highlight that there is a darker side to his skill – in getting people to trust him, to think of him as their friend, their confidante, Capote is ultimately setting them up for betrayal. Throughout the movie, there is a sense of Capote’s sensitivity being mostly crocodile tears – the Capote who emerges is petty and almost completely devoid of sympathy, a man who can’t wait for two men to be executed so he can finally finish the book he’s been writing about them. In one particularly ironic scene, Perry Smith’s sister tells Capote not to trust her brother – he will show you his sensitive side, she says, but he would as soon kill you as shake your hand. The same words could be said of the Capote that the movie portrays.

It would be easy, given this, to turn Capote into a monster. A few facts must be kept in mind though. First, the men Capote is so callously using, are, in the end, convicted killers, sociopaths responsible for the cold-blooded murder of an innocent family of four. It is not, in the final analysis, Capote who sends them to their death, it is the justice system. Capote’s only crime, if it can be called that, is to first give them hope, and then use that hope to ingratiate himself with them so he can extract the secret stories that will help him become the most famous and admired writer of his generation. This is cold and ruthless, yes, but it is also, in the end, pragmatic (in one luminous scene, Capote, in a burst of sternness tells Smith: “I am working, Perry. This is my work.”).

The movie’s own justification for Capote’s ruthlessness seems to be more Faustian. By focussing on Capote’s increasing alcoholism towards the end of the five year period, and by pointing out that Capote never finished another novel, the movie seems to imply that Capote paid the cost of writing In Cold Blood by losing his powers as a writer, entering upon a long spiral of drunkenness and lethargy that ended with his death of alcoholic complications in 1984. Could it be that in writing In Cold Blood Capote pushed himself too far, that in trying to prove that he was more than just a Manhattan socialite, Capote truly destroyed himself? This is certainly a romantic notion; whether or not it is true, however, is a different question.

It is another question that the movie does not really attempt to answer. The movie’s true genius lies (and genius it is) in crafting a riveting and intense portrayal of one of the most fascinating literary figures of our time, at one of his most critical moments. Shot in stark, uncompromising colour (which adds to the sense of moral drama) Capote is one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen this year – a moral fable that refuses to moralise, a fascinating exploration of the artist’s psyche with all the subtlety and depth of a Greek tragedy. Perhaps its greatest achievement as a film is that it makes it impossible to take sides, so that you are left floating in a sort of ethical limbo, unwilling to judge Capote or any of the others too severely.

It is also, in a sense, one of the most chilling horror films I have ever seen – the tale of an effeminate, harmless seeming writer who turns out to be a creature of terrible and ruthless power. There are scenes in this movie where the ease with which Capote lies and manipulates, the seeming innocence of his darkest, most horrifying betrayals, will make your blood run cold.

That despite these moments you emerge from the movie with mixed feelings about Capote is due entirely to the brilliance of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman delivers an acute and finely balanced performance of Capote – vividly showing you both Capote’s vulnerable charm and his self-serving calculativeness. It would have been easy to make Capote either a suffering martyr or a callous demon here, Hoffman does neither – his Capote is intensely human, with all the weaknesses and flaws that that entails. More importantly, it is a Capote who proves impossible to pin down, so that in his finer moments you are never sure how much of what you see is genuine and how much an act. This is a fine line to walk, and Hoffman does it wonderfully.

Bottomline: This is a must watch – an intense and chilling film, that draws you deep into its murky depths and leaves you, in the end with the same troubled queasiness, the same sense of unease, that makes In Cold Blood such a wonderful book.


[1] Not, of course, that I know enough about Capote’s life to judge. But an excellent review of the movie by Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books seems to suggest that the movie is reasonably historically accurate.