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The generous view of 2015’s Fantastic Four might be that studio interference was at least partly responsible for that lumbering dirge of a superhero reboot going so badly wrong. So with Josh Trank taking a more independent detour and seizing greater control as writer, director and editor on his return feature, it seemed reasonable to hope he might recapture some of the spark and invention of his 2012 debut, Chronicle. Capone is definitely an unconventional take on the twilight of a notorious gangster. Alas, it’s not an interesting one, although the borderline self-parodying Method madness of Tom Hardy’s performance does kind of demand to be seen.
There’s a scene not too far into this ponderous biographical crime drama when Fonse, as Capone is called by his nearest and dearest, grabs a rifle and blows a hole in an alligator after it leaps up the side of the fishing boat he’s on and takes the catch right off his line. His old mobster pal Johnny (Matt Dillon) drolly observes: “You know, this is what happens when people spend too much time in Florida. They turn into fuckin’ hillbillies.”
RELEASE DATE May 12, 2020
If only. That line suggests a sense of humor that’s mostly missing from Hardy’s grotesque caricature, a growling, mumbling, drooling thug chomping on a cigar stub, whose bloodshot eyes still seethe with menace behind his waxy latex mask. What they don’t reveal is any kind of humanity to draw us in to his messy decline. And I mean literally messy. Trank serves up not one but two scenes of inconvenient defecation, plus a deranged shoot ’em up conducted by Fonse wielding a shiny gold Tommy gun while wearing a saggy adult diaper under his bathrobe. This movie is not going to win points for its handling of the indignities of dementia.
It chronicles the final year in Capone’s life, when he had been exiled to his Florida mansion and was being kept under government watch after neurosyphilis had begun turning his brain to mush during a decade in prison for tax evasion. The hook for the story ostensibly is the Feds’ quest to verify rumors of a $10 million stash Capone supposedly hid someplace but now can’t recall where. There are glimpses throughout of that investigation, including Kyle MacLachlan as a crooked doctor angling for clemency by cajoling the patient to reveal his secrets during art therapy. But the big interrogation scene by ambitious young FBI agent Crawford (Jack Lowden) — who’s flanked by Trank in a vanity cameo — comes more than an hour into the film, by which time it feels almost like an afterthought.
The writer-director is more interested in the psychodrama of a disintegrating mind and the ways in which the past comes back to haunt Fonse as he struggles to distinguish the blurred lines separating reality from fragmented memories and fantasies. The emphasis on his explosive bowels, not to mention the number of times we see him hacking up great gobs of bile, suggests a man viscerally disgusted with himself. But there’s no real sign of introspection in the characterization or dialogue to back that up. Even when he’s scared and confused, Capone is too much of a cartoon here to engender empathy. He’s like a zombie bulldog.
Accomplished cinematographer Peter Deming’s cameras pan gracefully across the Florida waters, through the trees and around the manicured lawns of the palatial Capone estate. But despite the elegant visuals, lush colors and pristine skies, an evocative sense of dread hangs heavy in the air.
The paranoia that gnaws at Fonse is partly justified by his glimpses of FBI surveillance officers on the perimeters of his property. A liquidity problem necessitates the sale of sculptures of ancient Roman gods and centurions, which are hauled off, providing unsubtle symbolism for his awareness of his power slipping away. And in case that wasn’t clear, his fierce attachment to a “Lady Atlas” sculpture seems significant if only because it looks unmistakably like a giant draped phallus and testicles.
To distrusting Fonse, the solicitous attentions of his brother Ralphie (Al Sapienza) and son Junior (Noel Fisher) appear to have a self-serving edge. There are periodic disorienting calls from Tony (Mason Guccione), who may or may not be an unacknowledged son. Even his loving wife, Mae, (a sadly underused Linda Cardellini) is not spared hostile accusations and abusive outbursts from him.
But this is primarily a head movie that unfolds in the sepulchral chambers of Capone’s addled skull with a heavy load of woozy Lynchian weirdness and a dash of Kubrick’s The Shining. Many of Fonse’s episodes are triggered by visions of a boy — presumably himself as a child — with a gold balloon, who leads him off down the dimly lit corridors of the sprawling house. In one extended set-piece he stumbles into a basement ballroom where a bunch of swells are being entertained by Louis Armstrong (Troy Warren Anderson) singing “Blueberry Hill.” Another turn takes him into a backroom where his henchman Gino (Gino Cafarelli) zealously uses a switchblade to finish off a masked goon who’s been brutally beaten. From there, Fonse staggers out into a Chicago street littered with the corpses of a fresh bloodbath.
The off-kilter mood is amplified by a trance-like synth score from Jaime Meline, the alternative hip-hop artist who records as El-P. That doesn’t bolster Trank’s story sense, however, which is too muddled — perhaps intentionally so, but to its own detriment — to sustain much involvement.
There are playful touches like having Capone tune in and out of a serialized radio drama about the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. But there’s no mystery here, no intrigue, just needling recollections that chip away at Fonse’s fragile psyche without ever encountering anything as concrete as atonement, remorse or self-reckoning. A more probing writer might have mined this material for contemporary relevance about blustering powerbrokers brought down by their dishonesty and ruthlessness. And in terms of basic plot mechanics, the hidden-loot thread just peters out, albeit with a Grand Guignol moment in which Capone imagines Dillon’s Johnny gouging out his own eyeballs to help him find clarity.
There’s little room left for any of the actors to register around Hardy’s chewy, brooding turn. He plays Capone at 47 looking a good decade older, a carrot wedged between his thick lips once cigars are deemed off limits after a stroke. (That blow to his health renders the actor’s already challenging diction an even more gravelly slur-a-thon.) If there’s a wistful insight to be gleaned from him signing along with Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion to “If I Were the King of the Forest” during a home screening of The Wizard of Oz, it’s lost in the showboating.
In the crowded canon of American screen gangster portraits, Hardy’s Fonse more than anything recalls Al Pacino’s crazed mugging as the Capone-inspired Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice in Dick Tracy. Except he’s not funny. Mostly this turgid film just made me want to go back and savor again Hardy’s far more complex and colorful portrait of a career criminal as Alfie Solomons on Peaky Blinders.
Production companies: Bron Studios, Lawrence Bender Productions, Addictive Pictures, in association with Endeavor Content, AI Entertainment, Creative Wealth Media
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment (VOD)
Cast: Tom Hardy, Linda Cardellini, Matt Dillon, Kyle MacLachlan, Jack Lowden, Noel Fisher, Gino Cafarelli, Al Sapienza, Kathrine Narducci, Neal Brennan, Mason Guccione, Tilda Del Toro, Wayne Pére
Director-screenwriter: Josh Trank
Producers: Russell Ackerman, John Schoenfelder, Lawrence Bender, Aaron L. Gilbert
Executive producers: Ron McLeod, Steven Thibault, Anjay Nagpal, Jason Cloth, Adhrucia Apana, Chris Conover, Aviv Giladi, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri
Director of photography: Peter Deming
Production designer: Stephen Altman
Costume designer: Amy Westcott
Editor: Josh Trank
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
Rated R, 103 minutes
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