There’s a point near the end of Josh Trank’s Capone where a young FBI agent pleads with his superior to okay an interview with the aging, senile Chicago mobster of the film’s namesake. The senior agent dismisses Capone (Tom Hardy), saying he’s of no consequence and not worth the effort, but the younger man persists, asking whether the other agents knew “the difference… between Adolf Hitler and Al Capone?”
“Hitler’s dead.” he says.
In Trank’s film, Al “Fonzo” Capone might not be dead--though outward appearances would fool you--but he certainly gives off an aura of decay, and throughout Capone‘s run we’re taken on a journey of creeping dread and ambiguity that could only haunt a guilty man on the cusp of meeting his maker. Though whether that senior agent is right to simply not care about the washed-up gangster is up for debate.
Director: Josh Trank
Release Date: May 12, 2020 (VOD)
Capone sets itself up with a very simple premise, rooted in history: After serving a ten-year prison sentence (for tax evasion, rather than throat-slitting) Capone is rotting away with dementia in his Florida mansion in the late 1940’s, himself the ripe old age of 48, living the last year of life. The narrative doesn’t extend much beyond painting a portrait of the mobster’s final days besides alluding to a large stash of money allegedly buried somewhere on the mansion grounds, and his guilt over his bloody reign as “Scarface” Capone, one of history’s most iconic criminals.
It’s apparent early on that we’re leaning more towards a mood piece, with the tone, right off the bat, almost horror-like. We live and breathe Capone’s ailing mental state, with things becoming increasingly harrowing as the days tick away for old “Fonzo.” Distancing from his bloody legacy, his wife Mae (Linda Cardellini) insists on referring to her notorious husband by the nickname, and so it is. But evident in the myriad hallucinations and bloody recollections, Al can’t simply change his name and run. Capone wants us to live with a man who’s trapped in his head with all of the guilt and fear years of bloodshed and crime will accrue.
It’s in this regard that Tom Hardy becomes the film’s champion. Naturally, a character study depends on its actor to sustain itself, but Hardy commits entirely to the gravely-voiced and unhinged Capone, veering off into a torrent of swearing in Italian or losing his mind at the contractors working the mansion grounds. Hardy inhabits the costume and makeup of a sick, dying man akin to something we’d see in a gross-out horror film, hawking up mucus and literally defecating over himself in a portrait of a body giving up.
Capone is an ugly film, about an ugly man, and all the more interesting because of it.
Ugly in subject matter alone, of course. While I wouldn’t call it a strikingly-well-shot film, considering we’re largely confined to a single setting the production never wears down. Things look and feel of the era without flaunting themselves, the clothing, in particular, doing a great job of this. Whether it’s the aloha shirt worn by one of Al’s lingering mob guards or the man himself propped up in his diapers and burgundy bathrobe, Capone has a look.
Beyond Hardy’s dominating central performance, our supporting cast does a serviceable job. Linda Cardellini gets the most out of her role as the wife of boss, her frustration with a deteriorating mind giving way to empathy and understanding, though she isn’t played as a saintly caretaker necessarily. Kyle MacLachlan outfits well as Capone’s doctor, and Matt Dillon just naturally has the look of a Prohibition racketeer.
I hesitate thus far to refer to Capone as a “biopic,” a word wrought with positive or negative connotations depending on who you ask, but also perhaps not the point of Trank’s film, which he also wrote and edited. Capone isn’t interested in fact so much as it is truth, if you’ll allow the bit of philosophy. This is demystification and deglorification of a man who made a living off of savagery, and was ultimately rewarded with the karmic justice of a slow and grueling death during which his own facilities betrayed him. Truly, Capone in this sense is a brutal and disturbing film, and Trank shows a few moments of harrowing illusion and body horror that pull that weight. And yet you sort of wish we went even further down the rabbit hole.
To say Capone offers little in the way of “story” is a fair observation; very little actually “happens,” which is perfectly fine for an introspective affair. Yet I never felt as if the vignettes of nightmarish imagination we see via Capone’s disoriented and haunted mind reach levels of truly memorable screen-terror, which is made all the more difficult to really appreciate by the fact that we’re dealing with characters we don’t get to know beyond these strained months of their lives.
It brings us back to that point the FBI agent was bored by: Who cares? Why should we care about this terrible man, wasting away and maybe hiding some money? His guilt, the terrible things he’s done; what’s the angle? In this sense, Capone might puzzle an audience looking for some morality, or a “point,” and while I don’t think a film or work of art needs to announce--or even strive for--enlightenment, Capone could have done with a little more of a driving purpose. However, Trank’s film dares to dwell in nihilism, featuring a subject whose ponderous and frightful dementia can almost be seen as deserved. It’s a horrible thing, to lose one’s mind, but maybe it is the prison sentence that Capone deserved.
Though it is flawed, there’s an endearing quality to Capone‘s ugliness and meandering. It has cult film status from conception, both given its actual material and the much-publicized career of its director. Whether future legions defend the film as “misunderstood” or any other retroactive compliments are applied remains to be seen, but truly here is a film made with a limited ambition, by artists with a clear goal in mind. Capone doesn’t want to be a sprawling, glitzy Hollywood period piece, and though it still doesn’t veer too far off the deep end of extreme cinema it does prod its audience’s comfort levels. It’s a unique item that feels very much like an artist making a statement about where they’ve been and where they want to go: Trank, as disappointed with his previous blockbuster venture as fans were, and looking to forge a career-making films he wants to make. If Capone is an indication of what’s yet to come, I’m eyes and ears for whatever’s next.