Over the last week, Josh Trank’s multi-year journey: from self-proclaimed next Spielberg to persona non grata—has become well-known. The director’s once-meteoric rise due to the success of Chronicle (2012), crashed to earth with the disastrous Fantastic Four (2015)—and its later social media fallout. Now, to the surprise of many, he’s returned with Capone. Part B-movie; part feral oddity—and set during the final year of the gangland tyrant’s life—it’s a bat-shit biopic bedecked by body horror. Moreover, the rarely dull narrative offers Tom Hardy the chance to give the most crazed, over-the-top performance of his career.
Opening in 1941, Capone finds the now-retired gangster occupying a palatial mansion in Florida. Recently released from prison after a series of strokes, and a decline in his mental capacity from syphilis: Al (or Fonzo, as his family calls him) is now cared for by his wife Mae (Linda Cardellini). Though the pair call a lavish estate home—surrounded by priceless statues and artwork, ornate furniture, and packing bodyguards—they’re in financial trouble, forced to sell their opulence to cover living and medical expenses for the delusional former crime boss. In fact, the material gutting of the house serves as a visual metaphor for the changing and emptying of the gangster’s mind.
Trank’s biopic is unique, to say the least. Past cinematic depictions of Capone have included Paul Muni (Scarface, 1932); Jason Robards (The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, 1967); and Robert De Niro (The Untouchables, 1987)—and in all of them he’s a vicious killer. Hardy’s portrayal offers a startling difference; though just as menacing. Suffused by plaster cracking make-up covering his face, his garbled Tommy gun voice rasps as he vomits, sweats, and shits himself (literally) while shouting at alligators in Italian and threatening ghosts. Meanwhile, the paranoid Capone believes himself watched and spied upon—though on that count he’s not too far off. We, like Capone himself, are never quite sure if what we’re seeing on screen is real.
Oddly, Trank also employs body horror. In one scene, the former-gangland boss imagines himself in an eerie 1920’s party, led by a Louie Armstrong knock-off singing “Blueberry Hill” to the compendium of ghosts adorned in flappers and tuxedos. Reminiscent of The Shining (1980)—though filmed with less Kubrickian craft—Capone is led to a basement where he watches a bloodied masked man, tied to a chair, viciously and repeatedly stabbed in the neck with a switchblade. Later, while Capone lies in bed, an old associate cuts out his own eyes and lays them on his chest. Neither scene is particularly accomplished visually, instead attracting comparisons to blood-soaked B-movies. In fact, in some ways, Hardy’s performance evokes 1940’s Universal Horror. Like the Mummy, he stiffly stumbles and grunts his way through scenes.
Racked by guilt, Capone is haunted by many of his past victims—and the memory of his unknown son Tony: often depicted with a golden balloon. Moreover, an adult Tony (Mason Guccione) often calls Capone’s mansion, frighteningly hanging up before he can speak. The son’s subplot lacks substance and emotional payoff. Probably because the character’s composition is nothing more than a wooden stand-in for regret… maybe? Your guess is as good as mine. Matt Dillon as Johnny—one of the mob boss’ past friends—is similarly wasted as a repository for the retired gangster’s past vitriol. Only Cardellini—who hits the loudest slap I’ve ever heard in a movie—finds a niche from Hardy’s out-sized performance.
Even so, nothing rings as hollow as the McGuffin of the gangland tyrant’s supposedly lost treasure. A popular myth—that decades later led to Geraldo Rivera embarrassing himself on national television, when he opened an empty vault which he proclaimed was filled with riches—the legend holds that Capone misplaced millions of dollars in wealth. A secret he took to the grave. The subplot, like the narrative’s other dead-ends, offers little because Trank doesn’t provide a throughline between the mysteries he’s intrigued by and the character at the center of his film.
Still, Trank’s boldness—or maybe his careening visuals—haven’t left me. I don’t know why. Parts of Capone are just plain disgusting: reliant upon fart and poop jokes, lacking the sophistication needed to turn an immature narrative into a subversive character study. Moreover, Capone the man isn’t particularly compelling either. That’s probably because, save for one hallucination, we don’t have a before to match his downfallen after. However, one can tell that Trank is knowingly taking gambles, pushing the envelope: The film climaxes with Capone dressed in a bathrobe and diaper, a carrot hanging from his mouth ala Bugs Bunny, and brandishing a golden Tommy gun—shooting down his imagined enemies. Like many things in this biopic, it only adds to the bat shit, probably doesn’t work, and lacks refinement. Even so, it’s also entertaining as all hell: a trash B-movie moment pitched to unnerving perfection, and as excessive as the man.
CAPONE is out now on all major VOD platforms, distributed by Vertical Entertainment.