There isn’t a director in the world that could have staged that execution. I mean, sometimes fact is fiction, fiction is fact, truth is stranger than fiction.” In recalling the raw, rainy night, complete with a dog’s mournful howl, when Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were hanged for murdering farmer Herb Clutter and three members of his family, the Kansas director of penal institutions suggested how cinematic Truman Capote made such scenes seem in his nonfiction masterwork In Cold Blood. Infamous, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, offers a reminder of the personal cost.
Déjŕ vu all over again? Not quite. Although Infamous covers the same terrain as Capote, it is a very different film—less freighted with moody gravity but with its own way of conveying how the aftermath of the Clutter murders helped trigger Capote’s eventual decline into despair and addiction. Comic moments are also plentiful. Played with uncanny verisimilitude by English actor Toby Jones, this Capote is as winsome as he is self-absorbed, strewing sparkling witticisms wherever he goes, his choirboy bangs and eager mannerisms underlining why many pronounced him “adorable.” Inspired by Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, a 1998 interview collection by George Plimpton, Infamous contrasts Capote’s glittering Gotham social life—which eventually dimmed and shattered, leaving him bereft of many treasured imitation friends—with the social conventions and grim realities that awaited him in the Midwest like a punishing fate.
Capote goes to meet that fate as a confident eccentric bearing trunks full of delectably foppish outfits—pillboxes, fur-trimmed coats, drapey scarves. Like a parakeet away from its habitat he brightens a monochrome landscape, but Kansas steadily drains his vivacious color (“He got rid of the scarf blowing in the wind,” one acquaintance later noted). His childhood friend Harper Lee (Sandra Bullock) travels with him and helps immeasurably; she would later say that his invitation was “deep calling to deep.” His wary dance around flinty Alvin Dewey (Jeff Daniels) of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation—whom he dubbed “Foxy” but depicted as a figure of towering decency—leads to respect and affection, but he forms a more destructive relationship with Smith, a memorably wounded, volatile Daniel Craig. Infamous goes so far as to hint that the pair were lovers. In emphasizing Capote’s fragility, it makes the idea plausible—and the spareness of the execution scene all the more unbearable.
In general McGrath treats Capote’s more harrowing experiences with restraint, such as when he visits the Clutter house with an unidentified law enforcement official. He views some of the rooms, then gazes down at the bloody footprints haloed by chalk circles on the cellar stairs, before a dissolve to an exterior shot of the house seen from a great distance seemingly adrift amid prairie grasses, followed by a fade to black. This brief sequence economically evokes the loneliness and isolation that would become one of In Cold Blood’s most potent themes.
Less effective is McGrath’s decision to incorporate faux interviews in which some of the characters reminisce before an ersatz skyline as if on a talk show. Interviewees include Capote’s posh pals Slim Keith (Hope Davis) and Babe Paley (Sigourney Weaver); Random House publisher Bennett Cerf (Peter Bogdanovich); and the writer’s longtime lover Jack Dunphy (John Benjamin Hickey). Some remarks are revealing—such as Paley’s “You can forgive a person a lot who really enjoys you”—but most break the spell cast by the rest of the movie. Thus Bullock, elsewhere believably tough yet modest, approaches mawkishness. The exception is Bogdanovich’s portrayal of Cerf: his careful mimicry touchingly evokes Cerf’s fondness for Capote, his reverence for stardom, and his appreciation for the kind of well-crafted storytelling on view in this film.