Josh Trank’s “Capone” is bonkers.
Are you ready to watch infamous Chicago gangster Al “Fonse” Capone (Tom Hardy) pretend to smoke a carrot like a cigar? What about watching him yawp through a wobbly rendition of the Cowardly Lion’s song “If I Were King of the Forest” from “The Wizard of Oz”? Are you ready, friends, to see him fight gators while wearing a diaper? You better be.
It’s almost like Trank is operating a taffy puller to stretch the limits of what I can take seriously to their absolute breaking point. Is it weird, then, that I still take this seriously?
“Capone” breaks the mold from other “timeline biographies” and focuses on the last year of his life, when Fonse was self-exiled in his Florida mansion during the peak severity of neurosyphilis. Through this sober, often grim, account of his physical and mental degradation, the absurdity takes on a form of pitch-black comic relief. It takes a lot to make such a heinous criminal sympathetic, but I’ll be damned if Trank doesn’t pull it off.
Everything about Fonse seems designed to make me cringe — the scarred, blotchy face, the way he hacks phlegm through smoke-burnt lungs, the splattered, stinking results of his incontinent bowels. One look at how his family recoils to an “accident” and I swear, I can almost smell it.
Fonse sustains seizures, even to the point of partial facial paralysis. His lucidity comes in waves, used to either quietly stew over collect calls from his estranged son or to burst into paranoid rants about the “shadows” looming at the edge of his property. On top of this, he finds himself haunted by the gored ghouls of his past in horrific nightmares. The movie often presents these details in the most grotesque fashion. For all the jokes I’ve heard made at this movie’s expense, I wasn’t fully prepared for how much sorrow is in it.
The marketing’s been focused on Hardy and Trank, but the supporting cast, featuring Linda Cardellini, Matt Dillon, Noel Fisher and Kyle MacLachlan, do well in fleshing out Capone’s struggles, often cluing me in on what’s real and what’s imagined.
As Mae, Fonse’s wife, Cardellini is tough and nurturing, the one source of stability in Fonse’s life. That’s not to say her patience isn’t being tested: In one sigh or slump of posture, Cardellini reveals years of exhaustion. Mae has gone from being Fonse’s wife to his caretaker and as he loses his grip on reality, she loses faith that the man she loved will ever return. It’s intriguing that Mae doesn’t take Fonse to task for his crimes, only hinting at how blusterous and wild he used to be. Perhaps this is the product of her being complicit for so many years, or maybe she simply only sees Fonzo, her husband, not Capone, the kingpin.
The movie often compares Fonse to animals; at one point, his son Junior (Noel Fisher) jokes his father could be a passable ape with a few patches of glued-on hair. During Fonse’s impromptu karaoke, we see the reflection of the Cowardly Lion on his face. At his most demented, Fonse replaces words with gruffs and barks, unable to express himself. For a man once-renowned by friends and family for his scheming wit and sly charm, his current health is the darkest state of affairs.
In this manner, “Capone” employs body horror to convey the fear of dehumanization. The slow surrender of his humanity to the reptilian brain may be something Fonse can’t fully express, but it’s something he is absolutely desperate to stave off. As he loses control of his body and mind, the less human he becomes, and that terrifies him.
I look at this movie and think “Why Capone?” This story could be told about any person suffering dementia, but it’s about Al Capone. Trank turns gangster stereotypes against the audience in a morality play seeking to reshape what could be admirable about such an evil, revolting man.
My thoughts hearken back to the split between beast and man. Scarface spent his halcyon days indulging the id, grabbing at any material grandeur and form of power imaginable. With full control of body and mind, he chose the dehumanization of the spirit, the consequences of which come in horrific nightmares.
Now, those metrics he used for success — money, power, sex — ultimately lay limp and fruitless, a frustrating element for those who associate Al Capone with tommy guns, tailored suits, and a sinister sneer.
Fonse now has the chance to work through these sins and potentially find forgiveness. Unfortunately, he’s mentally incapable to process his own guilt, shifting the blame (sometimes deservedly) to others. “Capone” has the backbone of a redemption narrative, but the tragedy (and inherent frustration for an audience) lies in Fonse’s inability to admit his faults and work through trauma.
When it comes to biopics, “Capone” laughs in the face of convention, opting to immerse me into the hardest days of Fonse’s life, rather than the most notorious. The movie doesn’t relish in wanton violence, but rather focuses on the aftermath — the psychological, emotional and spiritual trauma. If you’ve got a weak stomach, some of this imagery is rough. It suits Capone’s crassness, but there’s no shying away from how difficult and foul neurosyphilis can be. By stripping away the gangster, the movie gets to the heart of what truly matters to the man. It’s a chaotic journey, but one well worth embarking on.
“Capone” is now available to rent or buy on VOD!
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Featured image credit: Vertical Entertainment
Daniel Berrios watches movies in Dallas with his wife and three meowing children. When not watching movies, he’s likely writing about them or discussing them on his YouTube channel. Outside of film, he enjoys “Borderlands,” cooking and playing a guitar that desperately needs new strings.