Tom Hardy Loses His Mind as a Demented, Ailing Kingpin in Josh Trank’s ‘Capone’
Debilitated and haunted by a bloody conscience, former crime boss terror Al Capone sits alone in his Florida mansion awaiting death. It is a riveting concept and the starting point of “Capone,” a drama that feels like the last chapter ripped out of a bigger story. Writer/director Josh Trank reportedly designed this film as a comeback project after the disastrous release of his 2015 superhero flop “Fantastic Four.” He certainly feels more assured here, transforming Tom Hardy into a rotting monster of a man. But it is a portrait in search of a proper frame.
Hardy plays Capone in the late 1940s as he sits around a lavish mansion in Florida, suffering from dementia and neurosyphilis. The former Chicago crime lord has already served ten years at Alcatraz for tax evasion and while he can now be at home, the FBI keeps agents around doing surveillance. Living with Capone is his loyal wife Mae (Linda Cardellini) who keeps a close eye on anyone who comes to visit. The gangster’s son Junior (Noel Fisher) also hovers around as does a crooked doctor, Karlock (Kyle MacLachlan). While Capone’s old mob associates stay away, old friend Johnny (Matt Dillon) still drops by to smoke cigars with “Fonzo.” What starts gnawing away at everyone’s suspicions is a continuing ramble by Capone where he insists he has hidden away a large stack of money ($10 million) somewhere. He just can’t remember the exact spot. It could just be part of Capone’s gradual spiral into madness as he increasingly loses basic functions while escaping into flashbacks to old, bloody memories during Chicago’s Prohibition-era street wars.
Despite its title, which was changed at the last minute from the more cryptic nickname “Fonzo,” “Capone” is more about the director than about the gangster. Trank has been very open about his descent into near-depression following the failure of “Fantastic Four,” which was a mess of a comic book movie riddled with plot holes and odd transitions. Trank of course claims the studio meddled with his cut, which is the go-to for every director straddled with a superhero stinker. But the success he had garnered with the 2012 found footage movie “Chronicle” dissolved into pariah status. Like Capone he went from being a higher up to virtual isolation. Or at least that seems to be the personal allegory of this dreary reflection on someone literally falling apart.
There are no insights into Capone’s actual story. Little is said or shown about his rise as a gangster and the finer details of his life are simply never explored. Instead we are invited to watch as Capone languishes away by the pool, his eyes darting at what could be an FBI snoop in the bushes. He speaks with a nasal voice, chomping in every scene on a cigar until the doctor makes him use carrots. Hardy develops a rambling voice which is hard to decipher at times, except when Capone shouts in Italian and we get subtitles. Hints at his past come through hallucinations so puzzling it feels like Trank wants to evoke David Lynch. A small boy we assume is a younger Capone will run through a hallway, or appear near his bedside disemboweled. The sickly thug will wander into a ballroom to the tune of “Blueberry Hill” before remembering the vicious stabbing of an associate. Gangsters fire on each other in rainy Chicago streets. Back in reality Capone is a portrait of pure debilitation. He shits the bed at night then shits himself while being questioned by a young FBI agent, Crawford (Jack Lowden). In the film’s best and most intense scene Capone has a frightening episode where he grabs a gold-plated Tommy Gun and goes on a slow-footed rampage through the mansion. He takes out a few grounds workers along the way, before falling into a lake and watching a crocodile emerge between his legs.
But these are moments seeking a narrative to tie them all together. From “The Godfather” to “The Sopranos,” the mob story has always worked best when it is inherently about something other than just crime. “The Sopranos” was about the rotten core of the American ethos, and the dark side of suburbia. “Scarface,” both the 1932 original and 1983 remake, were about the immigrant experience fusing with violent capitalism. “Capone” is missing that kind of richer purpose. It is not enough to just see Capone wither away, what is Trank trying to say about the man? By refusing to tell the entire story Trank’s film is left hollow. Capone hallucinates that a river turns into a massive wave before he imagines himself at the shore of a river, a yellow balloon floats into the air and his younger self stares down at him. But what are the images conveying? Characters like FBI Agent Crawford appear and disappear, never advancing the plot because there is none. The theme of Capone’s missing $10 million becomes a footnote. Mae’s marriage to such a ferocious personality is also brushed aside. She is simply the dutiful mob wife, although there are flashes of a stronger character as when she slaps Capone hard after he snarls an insult. Stubbornly “Capone” remains a half-formed movie until the end, offering brief flashes of a wider, perturbing life. If anything it may inspire some viewers to seek a good biography to read on the gangster.
Stuck with an incomplete narrative, the best feature in “Capone” is its design. Trank and cinematographer Peter Deming, who shot Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” and “Twin Peaks: The Return,” richly capture the period. Small flourishes make the setting feel organic, like the crackle of radio programs in the background. Capone constantly listens to a radio play based on the infamous “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” The music by El-P has tense ambiance. Trank never falls into the kind of truly laughable gimmicks of another recent gangster opus, “Gotti,” where period footage was scored to Pitbull.
There is also a perverse fascination to Tom Hardy’s demented performance as Capone. His eyes nearly always bloodshot, he garbles with a thin voice and gives the aura of a weak monster. It can get over the top, but since the script itself is so bare Hardy nearly stands apart from it. During a brief flashback we get a glimpse of what a younger Capone played by Hardy would have looked like, and we wish Trank had made a movie covering wider ground.
The term “passion project” does not seem to fit “Capone.” It feels more like a bitter exercise. But that is not its flaw. Like “Fantastic Four,” Trank again delivers a movie that is missing pieces. To do a life justice you need to encompass all of it. There is a good movie hiding somewhere beneath this one. It feels like a puzzle that someone started putting together, then gave up and left the other sections scattered.
“Capone” premieres May 12 on VOD.