Josh Trank’s return to Cinema is an intriguing misfire. The media frenzy surrounding the production issues and inevitable failure of his previous film, Fantastic Four (2015), is still fresh on audience’s minds. The truth behind the curtain will likely never come to light, but a recent Polygon article gives us a look into Trank’s mindset both during the production and the aftermath. The criticism that he squandered an opportunity most aspiring filmmakers only dream of seems unfair, even if his twitter comments disowning the film landed him in “director jail.” By all accounts, the production of Fantastic Four was a messy and frustrating experience for all, and it’s evident in the final product.
Capone (originally titled Fonzo) could have been the big comeback of a young hotshot filmmaker who risked it all and lost, but as it stands, it’s just a bizarre experience. One that is likely to elicit conflicted responses in its audience. Even if it doesn’t all work, it’s admirable as a pure unaltered vision of a frustrated filmmaker.
Capone is unconventional, both as a gangster picture and biopic. It follows the final year in Al Capone’s life, as his mind deteriorates from neurosyphilis. The way it deglamorizes the myth of Al Capone is intriguing, especially in comparison to the many generic gangster pictures that put their criminal leads on a pedestal. Trank’s version of Capone isn’t a sympathetic figure. He’s a grimy old man with a disturbing past. A protagonist that many will struggle to relate to, understand, or route for.
Tom Hardy is not the first performer to bring Capone to screen. Robert De Niro played the menacing real life figure in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987). Stephen Graham also played the infamous gangster in HBO’s crime series Boardwalk Empire. Hardy took a different spin on the role. What Hardy does in Capone defies all logic of “good” or “bad acting.” It is completely alien to the craft. In the opening sequence, he stumbles and grunts around, seemingly channeling Boris Karloff’s classic performance as Frankenstein’s monster in the Universal Horror films. It sets the perfect precedent for the strange performance to follow. His makeup gives him a pale face and bloodshot eyes. He’s a ghost, floating through the remnants of his past.
His paranoid ramblings are exciting to watch, and his unique grunts (the “ah” noise) just add the salt and pepper to this performance. Even if one does not consider him to be in top form, there’s no denying fascinating choices were made and that he’s captivating in every scene. One of the most telling scenes in the picture, is when Capone breaks down the story of The Wizard of Oz and suggests, in so many words, that he is like the Cowardly Lion.
The film has a solid, if underutilized, supporting cast. Linda Cardellini plays Capone’s wife, who’s struggling with his deteriorating condition and dwindling finances. There’s not much for her to do, but she certainly makes the most of it. There’s also Kyle MacLachlan as Capone’s doctor, and a man seemingly forced into keeping tabs on him for the FBI. Matt Dillon, an underrated performer, plays a friend from the past. There is a great variety of cast members who fill out the rest of Capone’s family as well.
One of the film’s weaker aspects is its editing. Trank, working here as writer, director and editor, makes some poor editing choices. Acting as editor allowed his auteur vision to remain unaltered but it was a risky gamble. Directors who also edit their films can become too precious of their material. Of course there are always exceptions, such as the Coen Brothers. Trank’s history as an editor outside of his own projects certainly gives him some qualification. However, the occasional choppy editing and odd choices make it seem as if this film could have been stronger with another set of eyes helping Trank shape the movie.
The story is simple. We stay with Capone as his mind falters. The McGuffin of the possible hidden millions only carries the narrative so far. This will likely cause many viewers to doze off, but it also feels like a natural extension of its central character. While not without its lulls and dull bits, the meandering plot presents the mind of Capone. He is an unreliable narrator and the film has fun playing with reality. Its stronger moments are often in his surreal nightmares. Similar to The Irishman (2019), the film explores how the mistakes of a gangster’s past comes back to haunt him in the end.
Unfortunately, the script doesn’t do enough with this, or dive deep enough. There are many topics that are touched on but never followed through with. Yet, there are still some impressive and fascinating sequences throughout. The influence of The Shining is undeniable. One of his visions occurs in a ballroom, reminiscent of the The Gold Room in Kubrick’s film. Capone’s mansion, his tomb, feels similar to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. It all builds to a mind-boggling climax, which some audience members may argue isn’t worth the shaky setup.
The comedic beats, whether intentional or otherwise, go against the attempts at a somber tone. A serious subject matter like this being handled in this way may elicit feelings of unease in its audience, but this seems at least partially intentional. At its center, it’s a movie at war with itself and what it wants to be, which to a certain extent also feels like a natural extension of the protagonist and his inner turmoil.
It’s a messy package with some fascinating ideas. Many audience members seem quick to label it as trash and move on without so much as an afterthought, which they admittedly can’t be blamed for, but it’s not so simple. The film is ambitious and bizarre enough that it deserves some form of discussion, but it’s not an easy film to defend or recommend. In time, it could achieve cult status, or it could fall into the void at the bottom of the discount Walmart bin (if it receives a physical release that is, which seems unlikely at this point). One thing is for certain; the ridiculous images of Hardy in this film aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The memes are coming.