I really wanted to write this review of Infamous without mentioning Capote, the other Truman Capote biopic that was nominated for Best Picture and scored an Oscar win for Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I didn’t want to mention it because only pure coincidence led to there being two movies about the subject appearing within a year of each other. Capote (a film I liked greatly, by the way) came out first, got noticed by Oscar voters, and ended up stealing almost all the thunder from Infamous. Careful consideration made me realize that this was exactly the reason why I should mention the competing film. With Capote having had its time in the spotlight – and with Infamous now hitting DVD – this is a perfect opportunity to catch a worthy movie that looks familiar on the surface but is actually quite individualistic.
British actor Toby Jones plays Capote who, as the story opens, is the toast of New York socialite life. His intelligent writing and witty banter make him a star among the elite set. His eye is captured by a news story out of Kansas that details the brutal murder of an innocent family. Determined to create “a new kind of reportage,” he heads out to Kansas with pal Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) in tow and begins ingratiating himself with the locals. Eventually the killers are caught. As he struggles to understand their story, Capote becomes fascinated by one of them, Perry Smith (Casino Royale’s Daniel Craig). This puts him in a quandary because for the book – now titled “In Cold Blood” - to have a satisfying ending, the criminals must be executed.
Okay, this admittedly sounds identical to Capote. But just as there can be divergent interpretations of something like “Hamlet,” so can there be divergent interpretations of the life of Truman Capote. We’ll never know which one is more accurate but, boy, is it fun to speculate. What both movies have in common is solid acting and a compelling true story. It’s in how they use these things that the films differ.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman played Capote as more of a shrewd manipulator, finding darkness beneath the surface that suggested he’d do whatever it took to write his masterpiece. Toby Jones captures another side of the man – the side that was more flamboyant and cosmopolitan. Under Jones’s watch, it’s easy to see why Capote was the toast of the town wherever he went; the guy knew how to sell himself. This quality is epitomized in a scene where he seduces the Kansas folk with stories of his personal interactions with celebrities.
The most significant difference between the pictures is tonal. Capote implied that Truman coldly manipulated Perry Smith in order to get what he wanted for the book. Infamous, on the other hand, posits that he had genuine affection – maybe even love – for Smith. At some level, they seem to relate to one another, even though from all outward appearances they couldn’t be more different. This approach leads to a conclusion that is more emotional because Capote seems more human. If Capote really did love Smith, then his failure to publish any books after “In Cold Blood” was caused by personal devastation and not, as Capote intimates, due to a figurative selling of his soul. Both theories are fascinating. If pressed to choose, I think the one in Capote is more interesting because it’s more complicated. But I think the one in Infamous is probably closer to the truth.
The fact is that both films are worth seeing, and even though the other one got all the awards kudos, Infamous is actually better in some regards. I particularly prefer the performance of Daniel Craig as killer Perry Smith. His intense interpretation of Smith centers the movie. I also thought that Sandra Bullock was better utilized as Harper Lee than Catherine Keener was in Capote.
It’s kind of rare for Hollywood to pump out two movies on the same topic in such short succession, but what a great opportunity for cinema buffs to study how different interpretations of the same material can lead to drastically different products.
The Infamous DVD also features the original theatrical trailer, as well as a lively and insightful commentary from writer/director Doug McGrath. He masterfully avoids the frequent pitfalls of audio commentaries (stating the obvious, endlessly commenting on “great” everyone was) and instead provides facts and anecdotes about Capote that further illuminate the film. His track should be required listening for other filmmakers preparing to discuss their work.
( out of four)
Infamous is rated R for language, violence and some sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
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