Joseph Fletcher put forth the tenets of “situational ethics,” stating that each situation dictates proper action and that love ultimately guides the process of decision. What we see in “Capote,” the new film biography of Truman Capote, is how the idea of situational ethics can be a slippery slope into self-destruction. When love for the sake of art is the motivation, there can be consequences.

The film begins with Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) holding center stage at a party. He tells stories and jokes, grabbing the attention of all in his circle. He’s obviously a charming, social being. The next scene shows Capote reading The New York Times and cutting out an article on the murder of a Kansas farm family. He calls his editor to say he’s going to Kansas to write the family’s story.


Capote arrives in Kansas like someone from another planet. In tow is Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), his research assistant who is not yet famous as a novelist. Lee, however, helps open doors for Capote, and they soon become attached to the Dewey family. Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper) is lead investigator on the murder case of the Clutter family; Dewey’s wife is taken in by Capote’s fame, charm and storytelling. 


Capote uses that charm to get into all manner of places. When Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) and Richard Hickcock (Mark Pellegrino) are captured and charged with the murders, Capote gets into the holding area by way of the jail’s matron; she wants Capote to autograph her copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Such duplicity becomes the hallmark of Capote’s research style. 


Perry Smith becomes a willing interviewee, and Capote listens and declares his intent on hiring a new lawyer for the two. They pled guilty in the original trial, but Capote tells Smith they are not the monsters that others have portrayed them.


Then Capote begins the slide into darkness. With each passing day, he becomes more and more involved in the story that will lead to an unintended place. Capote knows he cannot write his book without an ending, and that ending needs to be twofold: revealing what took place on that night in the Clutter home, and the execution of the murderers.


Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives an Oscar-caliber performance. He doesn’t just mimic Capote; he becomes the man who wrote the genre-bending book In Cold Blood (which this story is about). His body movements and small mannerisms bring Capote back to life. Hoffman takes Capote from being willing to chronicle an innocent family’s murder to doing anything to get the story out of a murderer. If lying is needed, he’ll lie. The end—the book—is justified by any means necessary. 


And the cost paid for that means is vividly shown. When Harper Lee has the premiere party for To Kill a Mockingbird, all Capote can do is sit in the corner, depressed and drunk over where he is in writing the book. His life-damaging descent into alcoholism is presented in graphic detail.


“Capote” is a fine film, showing how some pursuits lead into a darkness so black there may not be a way back out. “Capote” gives one much to consider.


Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.


MPAA Rating: R for some violent images and brief strong language.

Director: Bennett Miller

Writer: Dan Futterman (based on the book the Gerald Clarke)

Cast: Truman Capote: Phillip Seymour Hoffman; Nelle Harper Lee: Catherine Keener; Alvin Dewey: Chris Cooper; Marie Dewey: Amy Ryan; Perry Smith: Clifton Collins, Jr.; Richard Hickock: Mark Pellegrino; William Shaw: Bob Balaban.


The movie’s official Web site is here.

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