Josh Trank’s much-maligned Fantastic Four wasn’t actually his project at all. According to him, it was a studio version of the story, taken out of his hands and Franksteined together. So if Fantastic Four didn’t represent what Trank is capable of as a director, what does that mean for his latest movie, Capone, which stars Tom Hardy as notorious 1920s mob boss Al Capone? Trank is credited as director, writer, and editor of the movie, and in combination with his assertion that the film is “[his] cut,” there seems to be no question that Capone is an uncompromised artistic vision. As per the strains of the Turandot aria “Nessun dorma,” which ring out over the film’s starting moments, Trank has won. Capone is an ambitious, impressive film. But there’s a bittersweetness to it, too.
The film takes place from 1946 to 1947, the final year of Capone’s life before his death at age 48. Though just released from prison, Capone is suffering from syphilis and dementia, and is less and less cognizant of his surroundings. At times, it’s unclear whether he even remembers who he is. The people around him call him “Fonz” or “Al,” but never “Capone,” as if forcibly leaving the violent part of his life behind. But that separation grows increasingly difficult as both his family and the federal agents still on his tail begin to wonder if the rumor that he’s hidden away millions of dollars somewhere on his estate might be true.
Though Capone’s house is huge, there’s no glory or glamour to his life, nor his past, which manifests in dreams and hallucinations. He mistrusts everyone, even his wife Mae (Linda Cardellini). He can’t even rely on his own body — he can’t control his bowels, and ends up having to wear diapers. In spite of his infamy — we still know his name, more than seven decades after his death — his position is utterly unenviable. Unlike Goodfellas, which some argued glorified the gangster lifestyle in an unsavory way, Capone leaves no question that Al Capone’s life has destroyed him from the inside out.
What’s most impressive about the film is that it’s largely internal. FBI Agent Crawford (Jack Lowden) wants Capone back behind bars, but Capone’s failing health makes him relatively immobile, which means he’s unlikely to commit new crimes for Crawford to pursue. So the film’s action mostly takes place inside Capone’s head. Sometimes it’s clear that he’s dreaming, but in other scenes, such as a bloody machine-gun rampage, the distinction is frighteningly unclear. Either way, they push Capone through his reckoning with himself, getting across the heightening paranoia and frustration he can’t as easily express in real life.
As Capone, Hardy doesn’t play a figure recognizable from past media impressions of the gang boss. There’s no trace of the shine Stephen Graham brought to the role in Boardwalk Empire, or the swagger Robert De Niro had in The Untouchables. Hardy plays him as a completely new monster, closer, if anything, to Hardy’s Tim Robinson-esque stumbling in Venom. The strangled, phlegmy voice he affects for the role is at odds with his bearish lumbering and the wont (if not capability) for violence Capone so clearly still possesses. Every time it might be tempting to laugh at how bizarre his performance is, the brutishness he also imbues it with pulls that impulse back, and the way Trank holds back on violence makes it all the more shocking and off-putting when blood is finally spilled.
Trank’s deconstruction of a dying gangster neatly does away with the mythologizing that tends to surround men who achieve riches via guns and guts. He creates a rollercoaster effect as he makes his way almost seamlessly through dreams and reality and back again, sweeping through Capone’s house like a curious ghost. It’s a new kind of gangster picture, one that spins The Irishman’s refusal to glamorize a violent profession and focus on legacy into a heady dream. Granted, the figures around Capone get short shrift, with Mae’s relief at not having to deal with so much chaos, and their son Junior’s (Noel Fisher) disbelief at his father’s state mostly swept under the rug, tipping the proceedings more into dream territory than reality.
Trank’s Fantastic Four was meddled with beyond recognition, and crashed in its attempt at appealing to every lowest common denominator. Capone, by contrast, doesn’t make any concession toward what an audience might want to see from a gangster biopic. It’s a bold comeback for Trank. Hardy’s outsized performance could easily have fit into a biopic of a hale, healthy, and active Capone. Instead, Trank matches that vigor with inventiveness, finding an unusual new way of addressing an iconic figure.
Capone will be available on VOD on Tuesday, May 12.
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