Philip Seymour Hoffman inhabits Capote (©2005 UA/SONY PICTURES CLASSICS)

The problem with most biopics is that they try to match a written biography, starting with birth, ending with death, and always squeezing clean themes out of the subject’s life that were most likely never there or were far more complex in reality. Even smart, edgy biopics like Kinsey have clunky abrupt endings, because they set the arc too high. Generally better are focused and episodic films like The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Before Night Falls, and now Capote.

Bennett Miller’s film concerns the six-year period during which Truman Capote became obsessed with the brutal murders of a family in a small Kansas town and wrote In Cold Blood. There are no flashbacks to Capote’s youth; his character is conveyed solely by the actor portraying him. This demands an extraordinary performance, and like Bruno S. in Kaspar Hauser and Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls, Philip Seymour Hoffman is genuinely mesmerizing.

One of the first noticeable and wonderful things about Capote (and perhaps a result of its low budget) is how easily and elegantly it feels of the time. From the simple ranch homes in Kansas, to Capote’s Brooklyn apartment, Capote is refreshingly without the holographic excess of more expensive and soft-hearted biopics.

But then this not an ordinary portrait. Capote is, of course, a penetrating and merciless evocation of the strange and shifty genius of Capote, but it is also a devastating critique of representational art and the ego and objectification intrinsic to it. Capote’s sympathy and intimacy to the killers (so crucial to his book) is ultimately manipulative and two faced. His eventual mental breakdown results from letting himself care, all the while knowing that these men were just cogs in the creation of his “masterpiece.”

Enough can’t be said of Hoffman. It is the most impressive and consummated performance since Ralph Fiennes in Spider. Hoffman so completely inhabits his role that usual accolades for performances seem downright tawdry. The rest of the cast do not so much match him as quietly and efficiently do their jobs. Still, Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper, and Clifton Collins Jr. are all excellent and understated.

If there’s one flaw with Capote, which is beautifully shot and edited, it’s the score by Mychael Danna—a turgid, extremely clichéd, ominous piano bit (just as films of the ’50s all have a similar score that identifies their age, all serious movies of the last ten years seem to have the same Eno-like piano score whose emotional impact is now virtually irrelevant). But Capote is one of the films of the year, and if Hoffman doesn’t win an Oscar, after Giamatti’s snub for Sideways, we’ll really know that the Academy only gives awards to hardbodies.