Part gangster flick, part intimate character study, and part demented syphilitic delusion, Josh Trank’s “comeback” is as messy as its title character’s soiled underwear – and it isn’t willing to just roll over and die, either.
The most interesting question raised by Capone is to what extent its writer-director-editor Josh Trank sees himself in the necrotic image of Alphonse Gabriel Capone. One was a notorious Prohibition-era gangster and one of the most famous, inadvertently influential men who ever lived, and the other made Fantastic Four… but that isn’t the point. Both men rocketed to a level of success – for Capone it was his leadership of the Chicago Outfit; for Trank, it was his beloved sci-fi debut Chronicle – from which the only realistic way to travel was sharply downwards. Capone was whisked off to prison and Trank was caught in the whirring Marvel movie machinery; neither emerged the same.
Capone, or Scarface, or “Fonz” as most people in this movie call him, was ravaged by neurosyphilis, confined to a rapidly decaying body, and a tattered mind haunted by the ghosts of his plentiful misdeeds. Trank fared better, but only slightly. His blockbuster movie was utterly hammered in the press and reports of his on-set behavior painted him as a minor monster. Both men suffered the indignity of decline, of physical and reputational decay, left to amble in the long specters of their personal mythologies. The feared gangster had become old and decrepit and rotting. The wunderkind director had become an embittered hack.
To what extent Capone is biographical or autobiographical is part of its ignoble appeal. It’s the rare biopic that takes a prominent figure and chooses to hone in on the period of their life that is the least commercial and the most divorced from what led them to prominence in the first place. What we’re witnessing is ostensibly the final year of Fonz’s life, but whatever remains of the pinstripe-suited mobster has already lost a long battle with the necrotizing ghoul of his legacy, which continues to be half-heartedly upheld by devoted employees and loved ones who pretend that the famous scarred face isn’t sloughing off in chunks.
It only seems right that this once-immovable fixture of America’s underbelly is played by Tom Hardy, under layers of obvious prosthetic makeup and in a series of near-unintelligible grunts. Hardy is, as ever, attuned to some kind of mysterious artistic wavelength that only he can receive, so his performance is just as often brilliantly audacious as it is bizarrely miscalculated. Twice in this movie, Hardy is asked to noisily soil himself, and on both occasions, he puts as much effort into doing so as you could reasonably expect of anyone. That commitment to the indignities of Capone’s drawn-out demise is admirable, and the film’s supporting players, flashbacks, and delusions all orbit the insistent black hole gravity of Hardy’s goofy, daring impersonation.
In much the same way as you can never quite tell where Capone’s voice is coming from or where it’s going, even if there’s only one other character in a scene, what’s real and what’s imagined is also frequently open to interpretation. A sequence in which Capone disguises himself in a floppy sun hat and sunglasses to go fishing with his right-hand man (Matt Dillon), and during which he shoots a dodgy-looking animatronic alligator with a shotgun, is probably real, as is an unexpectedly poignant one in which a bedbound Scarface, his eyes weeping blood, listens to a radio drama about his exploits as though he’s hearing of them for the very first time. Beyond that, it’s difficult to tell. Capone may or may not have hidden $10 million from the authorities, may or may not have completely forgotten where he did so if in fact he did at all, and may or may not have an illegitimate son. By the time Fonz has swapped his cigars for carrots and is roaming around his swamp-side Florida mansion in a silky robe and his underwear wielding a golden Tommy gun, I’d long since stopped keeping track of fact or fiction. The film’s better when you do that anyway.
To what degree Capone constitutes a comeback for Trank is anyone’s guess – the reactions thus far, some of them hilariously hyperbolic, suggest that what he has delivered here is too repulsive to be redemptive. That seems a bit hasty to me, though. While Hardy’s performance and the film’s fetishistic devotion to it seal the aging tiger away in a cage that only he gets to prowl, Trank carefully composes the surrounding exhibition. Mileage will vary, opinion will oscillate, delicate sensibilities will no doubt be offended, and, as ever, the gavel will bang in judgment largely on charges that are none of Trank’s business or responsibility anyway. Ultimately, he made something in a way that nobody else would have wanted or dared to; a perverse, bizarre, intimate traipse through the final, miserable days of a mythic figure. If he’s willing to do that after an all-time career low, whatever might he do next?
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.