by Rae Nudson
In Cold Blood is Truman Capote’s masterpiece. This, at least, seems to be true. The book tells the story—expertly written, in detail—of the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. It reinvigorated nonfiction writing and the true crime genre, and boosted the career of the already famous writer. These, at least, are facts.
In Cold Blood is the only book to ever give me nightmares. This is also a fact. I’ve heard this same fact from multiple people—author Joe Hill said it in an interview, and my high school lit teacher told me in a tweet. There is a nightmarish quality to the book that bleeds into real life, and causes an inability to separate bad dreams from waking hours.
The Clutter family lived in a small town in western Kansas. I had family in the middle of nowhere Kansas, which perhaps added to the fever dream experience of reading this book. Like Capote, I once heard of a violent death in that small town. Unlike Capote, I traveled to Colby in time to make it to the funeral. Maybe like Capote, I’m not sure, I watched the sun come up over a horizon of flat land and felt as empty as the expanse in front of me. The low, heavy sun and sagging sunflowers seemed weighed down from the gravity of death, and their image is burned into my memory. But memory is a tricky thing. And Capote knows those tricks better than most.
Almost immediately after Capote published his account of the Clutter murders, critics started poking holes in his story. It would be almost impossible not to question the veracity of In Cold Blood, where conversations and scenes are recounted word for word from interviews with Capote after the fact. Memories are malleable—ask any investigator—and to present them as absolute truth is a kind of dishonesty. Critics who researched the crimes themselves found discrepancies between the records and what Capote wrote. Capote didn’t take notes or use a tape recorder during his interviews, so he had no way to prove that his accounts were accurate—not that he wanted to prove anything. In a 1966 interview with The New York Times, Capote said he was considering burning materials he received from one of the murderers. “I don't really want people poking around in the material of six years of work and research. The book is the end result of all that, and it's exactly what I wanted to do from it.”
Capote, the 2005 biopic that imagines Truman Capote while he was writing In Cold Blood, expertly navigates the murkiness of fact and fiction in the author’s life and work. The form itself, the biopic, is the perfect way to explore Capote. What better way to tell the story of a man who lies than to tell one of the defining experiences of his life with a fictional bent?
The first words Capote says in the film are a harbinger of themes to come. As he relays a story at a party, he quips, “Exactly, but at least be honest.” “But who’s honest?” a woman asks. “I’m honest,” Capote assures the room.
From that point on, the movie quietly and assuredly shows us how Capote lies.
His journey to truth gathering even begins with a falsehood. When Capote meets his good friend Nelle Harper Lee (yes, that Harper Lee) on the train to Kansas, he pays the man carrying his bags to compliment him in front of her, to appear more loved and more famous than he really is. Nelle, bless her, immediately calls him out on his deceit. She knew the man’s words were false because she recognized Capote’s voice in what he said. She knew Capote had written his lines. This small instance shows Capote’s ability and will to write his own reality. It’s clear from the beginning that he can’t be trusted—not completely.
The movie repeatedly sets up scenarios where the audience fulfills Nelle’s role and catches Capote bending the truth. His lies are sometimes kind and sometimes cruel, but they are always for his own gain. After Capote performs a reading of his book, one of the murderers gets ahold of a newspaper article about the event. Steely and quiet with rage, Perry asks Capote about the title In Cold Blood, which would portray him as a cruel, hard killer that he doesn’t believe himself to be.
Capote, of course, titled In Cold Blood himself. The viewer knows this because Capote bragged about it earlier to an investigator, eyes sparkling at his own witty word play. But he tells Perry now that the organizers of the reading picked the title to promote the event, and that they just wanted something sensational to attract a crowd. He assures Perry that he hasn’t chosen a title yet because he hasn’t finished the book. This seems to mollify the murderer, whose face softens and breathing deepens as they continue the interview.
Was it kindness that kept Capote from telling the truth when he knew it would hurt Perry? Or is it cruel to take everything from the man, profit off his pain, and not be honest about what he is taking? Did Capote lie to shield Perry’s feelings, or to make sure he could maintain his relationship with his subject? Did he lie for Perry, or for himself? Does it matter, if the result is the same?
The film’s narrative centers on these quandaries and the man who helms them. Capote is in almost every scene, the camera (and viewer) sometimes literally following him through the story. Other times, the camera stands still as Capote walks through scenes, just as he is wandering through the memories he’s collecting. It often places him toward the edge of the frame, or views him indirectly, through a reflection or a window, indicating the loneliness and isolation of this world he has created for himself.
Philip Seymour Hoffman deftly carries the complex moral questions of this movie. Hoffman’s performance is phenomenal—his face flits through smug, endearing, hilarious, devastated, and frustrating faster than anyone around him can keep up. His subtle sarcasm when bribing a prison warden to gain access to the murderers is the funniest scene in a largely somber movie, and it shows how Hoffman can balance humor and horror without going overboard on either. “You are a kind and generous man,” Capote says, convincingly, to the man he just paid off.
Like Capote in the novel, Hoffman in the film portrays a story without inserting himself or attaching a moral reading to his subject. The movie is compelling because of Capote’s emotional journey, and the humanity—or pain, really I mean the pain—Hoffman brings to the role, even when Capote is cruel or his motives confusing.
Underlying all of Capote’s actions is his pain. Avoiding or assuaging pain is perhaps the main motivation for his lies—at least the ones he tells himself. The longer the case goes on, and the more appeals granted for Perry and Dick, the more Capote falls into an emotional black hole. He wants to finish his novel, but he can’t until he knows how it will end.
Capote at first hired lawyers for Perry and Dick. Whether this was to help them get a fair trial or to extend their lives so he could collect more information is unclear. What is clear is that toward the end of their lives, during their final appeals, Capote stops helping them. He stops providing legal help, and he stops communicating with them. It’s not until their execution date is set and Nelle forces him to hear one of their pleading telegrams that Capote speaks with Perry and Dick again. In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Capote stands in front of the killers on execution day and apologizes. But the hollow apology centers on himself and his image. “I don’t know what you must think of me,” he says, though they will only have the ability to think for a few more minutes.
Here is one of the more excruciating lies he tells: Capote stands before two men about to die, two men whose crimes and lives are bringing him success and fame, and he tells them that he did everything he could to help.
Nelle, once again, calls him out. “Maybe not,” she says, when he laments that he couldn’t have saved them. “The fact is you didn’t want to.”
This push and pull between what Capote wants to be true and the actual truth is perhaps his real legacy. In Cold Blood, and the controversy surrounding its publication, was a louder signal of what was to come in American society than anyone realized at the time. Years before a president-elect screamed “fake news” during a press conference, bookstores were placing In Cold Blood in the fiction section, foreshadowing distrust in journalism and the media. Capote’s decisions throughout the research and writing of the book often mirror those people currently in power, who declare self-sacrifice while chasing their own self-interest.
My brain hasn’t been working right since the election. I keep forgetting things I used to remember, and losing things the second I put them down. My capacity for processing information struggles under the weight of lies in the atmosphere, and it’s hard to trust anyone right now, especially people in power. The election signaled a time when journalists, policymakers, and private citizens have, like Capote, lied in the pursuit of power and their preferred narrative. Yet some people seem hesitant to use the word “lies”, as if you need malintent to spread misinformation. Instead, they say fake news, or opinions, or—worse—they don’t say anything at all. Like Nelle, I am left to examine what others say to assess their words for accuracy. Skepticism is healthy in this environment, though my desperation sometimes borders on nihilism. Facts have become my lifeline as I drown in falsehoods.
Capote, in a way, provides relief. It trusts viewers to spot its lies. Watching it is an exercise in critical thinking, and it feels good to work those muscles. I know what Capote actually did in the film, and what he told people he did. I know what to question and what to doubt, and by questioning Capote’s words, I gain a deeper understanding of the movie and the world. I can go deeper still, and investigate Capote’s real life, and see what the movie changed and what it couldn’t know. I can guess at what Capote himself knew and didn’t during his investigations, and draw my own conclusions.
Like Capote, In my own assessment of what’s true, I have to decide what I can live with and what I can’t. Right now, that means questioning everything, especially those who don’t question themselves. Because a man who says he never lies is lying. That’s just the truth.
Rae Nudson is a writer and editor based in Chicago. She's written for The Billfold, Esquire, and Real Life. You can find her on twitter @rclnudson.