If you’re in the market for a memorable, niche, low-budget and high-versatility Halloween costume, Tom Hardy’s feral personification of a deteriorating and deadly Al Capone could be a winning choice — soiled diapers, frenzied hair, carrot-chomping jowls, gold-plated Chicago typewriter and all. If you’re looking for a thorough and illuminative portrait of one of the world’s most infamous figures — an antihero to some, an embodiment of unbridled evil to others — perhaps you have longer to wait.
Director, writer and editor Josh Trank has crafted a Capone movie that delivers less of a portrait of a figure than a portrait of defeat. That’s not a dig; one of the film’s slickest ideas is that even the mightiest will fall, and when someone as mighty as the original ‘Scarface’ comes crashing down after a thrilling defeat in court, a ten-year prison sentence, and four stages of neurosyphilis, some loopy things are going to happen. And loopy is exactly what you get with Hardy’s deranged, scenery-devouring performance.
The versatile actor’s physicality is very well used throughout Capone, (née Fonzo), which dramatizes Capone’s 1946, his final year alive, as his family and various confidantes try to care for him, and needling FBI agents attempt to trick the rapidly declining man into revealing where he might have hidden ten million dollars. Hardy stomps around the Florida mansion where Capone has been banished in his waning days with the kind of reckless madness to which few Hollywood stars are willing to commit anymore – though that’s not to say the usually masterful performer pulls this off without issue. Many of his lines are delivered in a befuddling and incomprehensible dialect fluctuating between Hardy’s native English register and notes of garbled, poorly-directed Italian. This is not a perfect movie, but if you can see it as a bizarre distraction, you can have a lot of fun with it.
Moments of deranged fun are sprinkled throughout Capone, involving some swanky set-dressing, sudden alligator appearances, and certain moments of Hardy’s über-strange, hyper-method overacting. But, while the film offers a number of morbid delights, even the best of them conveys thin, repetitive insights — depths previously plumbed by the gamut of gangster films, from the Capone-derived Scarface (both of them) to Scorsese’s The Irishman. To be fair, Trank’s script deliberately avoids clichés of that genre, relegating the vicious shootouts and mob violence to flashbacks and hallucinations, yet this restraint achieves little in the way of valuable or original insight. It is more of a mood film than a biography, so do not expect an update of Robert De Niro’s deliciously suave and dangerous Capone from The Untouchables, or Stephen Graham’s brooding, insecure Capone of Boardwalk Empire. No, Hardy and Trank go all-in on broad mania and decrepitude; Fonzo doesn’t smash heads or plot takeovers, he soils his drawers and suffers debilitating strokes.
Some of this atmospheric gloom can likely be attributed to Trank’s lingering resentments regarding his own infamous backstory — encompassing the astounding critical and commercial success of his first feature, Chronicle, and the universally maligned and unforgettably titled Fant4stic (make no mistake – this is that film’s one true title and its one true title it shall remain). Though it would be highly questionable of Trank to earnestly relate his unfortunate fall from grace to the deterioration of a figure so titanic as Al Capone, his attraction to such a character does have precedent. Both his previous films are superhero stories with uniquely grim (perhaps in the latter’s case, far too grim) interpolations of archetypal superhuman narratives. In his own way, Capone is himself one of the handful of American figures with a notoriety so massive he could qualify as his own superhuman character — if not exactly heroic, then certainly one of our most hallowed supervillains.
Love him or hate him, Capone towers over fundamentals of American history, from the growth of the city to the Great Depression to his warped (but arguably successful) stab at achieving the American Dream. To his credit, Trank diligently picks up on this facet of Capone’s legacy. One of the film’s most crafty and incisive details features Capone reimagining, and partially rewriting, chapters of his life as he listens to a radio dramatization of his own “adventures.” As the radio voices act out the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and other bombastic episodes in his crime career, Trank and Hardy present a truly disoriented Capone — a man whose legend has become the stuff of entertainment, as he becomes the aftermath of early onset senility. It almost becomes moving to see such a minimization; when an associate, Johnny (Matt Dillon), tells the ailing man “You got nothing to worry about, you got nobody coming for you,” Hardy’s brooding silence deftly expresses that such a statement is the least comforting thing for a man like him to hear. It means he’s not himself anymore.
Ultimately, though these insights can be fleetingly compelling, the film lacks much follow-through. What could have presented either a humbling “and Alexander wept…” portrait of a man incapable of looking past his prime, or a more surreal, ethereal meditation on decline and isolation, instead suffers from a mismatch of parts. The editing is often clunky and distracting; the visuals do not always fit the mood; the soundtrack (though itself a very good collection of music, composed by the excellent El-P), does not always fit the scene; Hardy’s bizarre behavior rarely fits the dialogue or the bounds of believability.
However, I would be lying if I said it isn’t good fun to watch Hardy-as-Capone growl like an anthropomorphized alligator and skulk around like a Halloween costume come to life. In these times of living sequestered in our homes and traversing the same spaces day in and day out, there are some morbid but edifying connections to be had with the Capone of Capone, and I for one look forward to chowing down on a cigar-shaped carrot and exclaiming “Assassino!” at things and people. If you’re up for something undeniably flawed but enjoyable enough, spend a little time at Capone’s house.