You can’t judge every movie by its pre-credits scenes, but the ones in Capone provide a pretty decent summary of what you’re in for. Tom Hardy’s take on the titular character is a has-been, pallid goon lumbering around his Florida estate. He is out of prison and in the care of his wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini), at the price of failing health — complications from untreated syphilis have ravaged his body and mind. He looks like a rotting, red-eyed gremlin, and he sounds like one, too; the opening text proclaims that this is the last year of his life.
In this state, Alphonse “Scarface” Capone — who’s going exclusively by “Fonz” or “Fonzo” as if to distance himself from his past — sits before the fireplace in an armchair. He sweats, puffs on a cigar with all the flourish of a gangster caricature, and then wets himself as he hacks into a trash can. “Where dat come from?” he gurgles, patting the damp spot on the cushion. As Al’s son (Noel Fisher) runs to grab him a towel, the big man alternately contemplates the painting on the wall, the urine on his fingers, and the middle distance. Cue title card. This is Capone: the notorious gangster pissing and shitting himself into oblivion in Florida.
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Don’t Call It a Comeback
Faced with this concept, one might reasonably wonder what else there could possibly be to the film. In a lot of other movies, after all, a character’s final days are a vehicle for flashbacks, a framing device for the glory days. We might imagine Al’s exile has extra resonance for writer/director/editor Josh Trank, who’s coming off an infamously catastrophic Fantastic Four remake that was, to be fair, visibly taken away from him in some capacity. Trank, now with more creative control, has called this one a passion project.
But Capone defiantly keeps its focus on an unflattering present. Beyond snippets of a heavily embellished radio play detailing the gangster’s Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, much of the film plays loose with context. The requisite ghost people and dream sequences that mark Al’s deterioration explain very little, never even rousing him from his diminished state; beyond one imaginary glimpse in the mirror, he’s the puttering shell of a man we see right from the start. In one extended sequence, he wanders the hallways and stumbles upon an old-timey party headed by a wide-eyed Louis Armstrong, the eerie atmosphere seeming closer to The Shining than the average biopic. Here, the past melts into a bleary horror movie.
Even the more lucid moments play with a dreamlike absurdity. Al scolds an alligator for stealing his fish, calling it a bum and then blasting it with a shotgun. He begins chomping on carrots as a doctor-ordered substitute for cigars (Bugs Bunny comparisons are made), and he grips one in his teeth when he goes on a rampage with a golden tommy gun. The most a taped FBI interrogation can get out of him is audio of loud pants-shitting between his mild exclamations of “oh dear” and “oh no.” The movers come to pack up Al’s tacky art for auction, and he mutters that he’ll cut the head off of anyone who touches his Lady Atlas statue, the one with a tarp over it that exaggerates its most phallic qualities.
There’s something bracingly horrible about Capone’s commitment to decay, all of its strangeness dovetailing into a characteristically grumbly performance from Tom Hardy. He consumes the movie like some kind of inverted Nicolas Cage who’s more given to mumbling than shouting; the film’s digital release is a boon for the simple fact that you can throw on subtitles. In that weird, throaty growl, he sings not once but twice.
Let’s not pretend anyone needs to go to bat for Josh Trank — he’s weathered a career torpedo and put out a new film with a big star just a few years later, which is many more chances than most directors get. A bolder filmmaker might have followed the weirder angles of the story much further than the ultimately literal-minded Trank does, but he’s onto something here. Capone carries a fascinating air of dissolution and body horror, in much greater quantities than what made it into Trank’s otherwise unsuccessful Fantastic Four. The unglamorous spectacle is the point, wallowing in ruination like violence repeatedly visited upon a cartoon character.