‘Capone’ Review: “Reinventing The Gangster Movie”
Al Capone sits upon his throne. Haunted by the shadow of legacy, his mind deteriorates as only the most malevolent ghosts of his past haunt him. This is the story of Capone, but according to a recent Polygon profile, it might also be the story of Josh Trank.
Written over four years, this piece is an objective look into the life of the notorious Chronicle director. After the fallout of the failure of his Fantastic Four, Trank went into exile. Overtaken by stories of a difficult “Josh Trank” he didn’t recognize, he underwent years of radio silence. That is, until he decided to transform his pain into art. The result is Capone, a chilling, unusual film that not only is a roaring return for Trank, but it may also just be his best work.
Unlike the majority of gangster biopics, Capone has no interest in its subject’s triumphant rise. Instead, the film follows Al “Fonzo” Capone (Tom Hardy) as he lives out the last year of his life in a Palm Springs mansion. To make matters more complicated, he has reached the point where syphilis has taken control of his mind and body. From there, it’s a matter of watching the slow implosion of the former king of the outlaws.
Enjoyment of Capone is entirely contingent on one thing: Tom Hardy’s DEFCON 1-level bonkers performance. If you didn’t think Hardy as a human/alien hybrid who eats uncooked lobsters was strange enough, Hardy’s Al Capone is right up your alley. His croaking, demonic voice pierces through your very soul. He speaks in near non-sequiturs. He doesn’t even bat an eye when he defecates himself… multiple times. The make-up department turns Capone’s face into a hideous canvas that allows Hardy to bulge his eyes and contort his face.
To many, Hardy’s Capone will be a live-action cartoon character. To this critic, his work is nothing short of staggering. Hardy pulls out all of his tricks to make Capone a grotesque husk of a man. It verges on caricature, but that works for what Trank and co. are trying to do here. He is the externalization of mental and physical decay, with pieces of his former self struggling to get out. A prime example is a scene where Fonzo and his family are watching The Wizard of Oz. Unprompted, he gets up and starts singing right along to “If I Were The King of The Forest”, remembering his youthful vigor before slinking back into his eternal Hell.
Trank builds the entirety of Capone around this performance. It’s a risk that pays off. Shot by Mulholland Drive director of photography Peter Deming, the film takes on a surreal Lynchian quality where past and present exist at the same time. Trank’s deliberate editing, bravely unusual screenplay, and an eerie score by El-P work to sow doubt into what’s going on. We know that there’s apparently $10 million that Capone’s hidden somewhere and that the FBI is on his trail. We know that he has an estranged son. On top of that, both his son and his doctor (Kyle MacLachlan) are in cahoots with the FBI. But do we?
Paranoid uncertainty pervades the picture. Scenes of normalcy like Capone hanging out with an old mob buddy (Matt Dillon) give way to Fonzo shooting down an alligator. A trip through his mansion turns into a trip through time back to his glory days, where a full party where Louie Armstrong waits for him. Capone spirals further in further until the point comes where he’s shooting a golden Tommy Gun in his courtyard wearing a diaper.
This is the type of image that could be comedic to some, but here reads as frightening, and even sad. That’s because Capone avoids the usual gangster movie cliches and opts instead to be something uncommon: a gangster horror film. We’ve seen these movies flirt with the idea of broken legacy, but that’s usually confined to the last 10 minutes. Capone makes us confront the ugly nature of losing stature, trying to reckon with what you’ve done in the past while also combating your mind.
It’s compelling when you parallel it with the post-Fantastic Four times Trank spent rethinking his own legacy. However, it’s more compelling when you take it universally. Having your reality ripped from you is a terrible thing. The rise and fall of gangsters have been seen many times throughout cinema history. But that fall has never been made so operatically tragic. Just as he reinvented the superhero genre with Chronicle, Josh Trank has completely rethought the gangster flick. –James Preston Poole
Capone is now available to rent or buy on Digital HD.
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