It took me almost 20 minutes to understand what Capone is. Tom Hardy, in thick makeup and with a thicker grunting voice (slurred by an omnipresent stogie), shuffles and wanders through this movie, occasionally staring off into the distance as if falling into a reverie. He’s playing Al Capone in the final year of his life, enfeebled physically and mentally by syphilis, and every time he does that stare into space thing your biopic trained muscles prepare for a flashback. This, you think, is where we will see Hardy as a young, powerful Capone, revealing the doddering old wreck stuff as a framing device.
Nope. There are no significant flashbacks in Capone. There is a lengthy dream/hallucination sequence where an addled, diapered Capone wanders through scenes from his own life, but that plays more like a version of The Shining than a standard biopic. These aren’t memories, they’re ghosts, and he’s not remembering, he’s being haunted. Josh Trank’s Capone is anything but a standard biopic, and it’s a movie that is almost aggressive in its unwillingness to give you anything comforting or expected.
To follow up the career flameout of Fantastic Four – and his tweet-related unpersoning – with this movie is an act of supreme bravado, and boy do I appreciate it. The internet is already fixating on aspects of the movie that are… wild, to say the least, but as always the folks joking about Hardy’s Capone shitting his pants multiple times are coming at the film as if they’re smarter than it is, as if Trank doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. As if Tom Hardy’s impenetrable performance is some kind of mistake or as if the director didn’t know how to control his star.
The truth is that Trank and Hardy are on the same psychic wavelength, and they’re swimming together in the strange end of the pool. This isn’t a mob movie, it isn’t a biopic, it’s nothing standard or normal – it’s a document of decay, a meditation on the way things fall apart, a horror movie about the end of the American Dream. Capone, shitting all over himself and drooling, represents the grotesque hollowness of the rags to riches vision of America – the only way to get to the top is to rot yourself, morally and physically.
Set almost totally in a mansion in Florida, Capone has that same ‘trapped inside going mad’ energy of The Shining, except brightly lit by the Panhandle sun – which makes it even creepier. Capone – Fons, as he’s known (short for Alphonse, and you cannot call him Al) – is trapped on this estate, which is being dismantled around him to pay bills to keep the family afloat. As his body falls apart, as his mind slips away, so too does his very environment dissolve around him. He is losing literally everything, in a more fundamental way than we usually see in a movie.
Trank focuses on this, but he comes at it from a perverse angle. We never know Al “Scarface” Capone. There are no scenes of him as a tough gangster, no moments of him displaying authority or power. From the very first time we meet him he is verging on being an invalid, and his relationships with his friends and family have the pre-grieving sorrow of a wife sitting at her husband’s death bed for weeks and weeks, hoping he doesn’t slip away but impatient for him to do so.
So we’re given only this broken, dying Capone, and we are forced to fill in the blanks with our own cultural imagination. Trank helps us a little; there’s a radio show that plays sometimes, giving us the pop culture version of Al Capone, which Fons himself can’t stand. But we’re left only with this melting disaster of a human body, one that still exudes a striking menace. He is shitting himself but he also contains a furious energy that is perhaps more furious because of his addled brain, because of the way he is constantly confused and confounded.
Here Trank dissects the Mob movie antihero, displaying him as a hulking babyman, a primal monster whose world extends to the tip of his nose. In The Irishman Martin Scorsese spends 30 minutes in this kind of a space, examining the desolation of the lives of these men. Capone is all about it, spending its entire running time mired in the misery that is Al Capone’s final days. Capone himself makes the perfect vehicle for this kind of an extended metaphor about the decline and destruction of the capitalist pig – he spent decades rotting from syphilis he contracted before he was 15, a man whose physical putrefaction is a mirror of his moral putrescence.
Trank is fascinated by this decay, and he examines it in a scatalogical way. The only bodily fluid we don’t get onscreen is semen; otherwise Trank rubs our faces in urine and feces, spittle and bile, blood and tears. We feel every bodily degradation, the loss of every bodily function as they slip away from Capone. The mobster is humiliated by his own body, and then by his own family, as they take away his trademark stogies and replace it with a ludicrously orange carrot. Al Capone was a man who controlled everything around him. Now he controls nothing, not even his own bowels.
That leaves Tom Hardy to show us the other dissolution – the mental one that takes Capone away from the world in which he lives and leaves him in fugue state between past and present. Hardy is one of our most weird ass actors, and he goes all the way here, playing the role with grunts and groans and guttural sounds that veer from the animalistic to the comedic. But what Hardy really excels at is getting across the panicked confusion that overtakes Capone at times. He can’t control his body and he definitely can’t control his mind, which takes him away on nightmare reveries and leaves him unsure of what’s happening from minute to minute.
It’s those moments where Hardy is best, not the ones where he’s growling gibberish (although those are really great too). Hardy gives us the fear that Capone, even in his befogged state, knows he has to keep down. The shitting scenes are the focus of a lot of online snark, but snarking them means you’re missing the sad collapse of the man’s spirit that Hardy plays so expertly; he gives us these moments of tragic weakness as small notes against a roaring symphony of insanity, and they’re easy to miss if you’re watching the movie on a laptop with Twitter open in its own window. But a viewer committed to actually seeing the film will be entranced with the dynamic range that Hardy shows – as big as he gets he is always capable of being even smaller.
As Capone ended (with a scene that I’ll be considering and parsing for a long while to come) I was seized with the idea that I need to watch this film again but also with the certainty that I cannot do that right away. As operatic and cartoonish as some scenes can be – Hardy’s Capone standing in front of a movie screen showing The Wizard of Oz as he off-time duets If I Were the King of the Forest with Bert Lahr being one of them that I especially loved – the film itself is a harrowing examination of disintegration. Buddhist monks in India go to the banks of the Ganges to meditate at the funeral pyres there, to watch the skin and muscle blacken and peel away from the bones, and to say to themselves, “As those corpses are, so will I be one day.”
What I think might make this movie brilliant is that it presents the melting of Al Capone as both moral judgment but also as the inevitable progression of the human body. In his nightmare reveries Capone revisits a murder he supervised, and he is horrified by it. He travels back to gangland warfare and ends up face down in a pile of bodies. He is poisoned within by the things he has seen and done, and that’s part of why he is falling apart now – the syphilis is just the outward expression of this inner disease.
But at the same time what Capone is experiencing is just what people experience. His punishment may be that he’s experiencing it way earlier than normal (at the beginning of the film I wondered why Hardy was playing an old man – again, assuming there would be flashbacks where he would be out of makeup – but when I looked up their ages I found Tom Hardy is only a few years younger than Al Capone was when he died), but he’s going through what waits for many of us. Josh Trank envisioned Fantastic Four as body horror, and now he’s made an Al Capone movie as body horror, with the body horror being the aging and decay of the human body itself.
There’s just a lot in Capone from which I need a little distance, but there’s more in Capone calling me back. Trank’s film is audacious as hell, and I think many of the initial poor reviews come from people who simply didn’t know what they were getting into, who thought this would be something more traditional. This feels like the kind of movie – a feverishly weird and unique movie – that will be reevaluated down the road as the initial impact of its high strangeness wears off. That the movie is offbeat and plays with its own tone in an almost dizzying way is undeniable, but it’s also part of what makes it so incredible. Without gangster tropes to fall back on (although he does do a very good twist on Scarface’s final shootout), Trank instead plays the tone in a way that an action filmmaker would play with set pieces; he weaves the over-the-top and insane through the movie, and just as you think the film has settled into a kind of glum zone Capone will kill an alligator with a shotgun for stealing his fish. If anything, Capone reminds me of South Korean cinema, whose auteurs are more comfortable mixing the silly and the sublime, sometimes in the same scene.
When this movie was getting made it was called Fonzo, and maybe that’s a better title for it. Capone is stock, a title that speaks only to our cultural understanding of the man. You could make a four hour miniseries for the History Channel and name it Capone and call it a day. But Fonzo is off-kilter, unexpected. It actually gets you into the right headspace for this film – it’s intimate and it’s silly, it’s 180 degrees from Capone’s usual nickname, Scarface. Knowing that the movie is called Fonzo would be the kind of thing that would jar your expectations loose as you start the film.
Clearly Capone is not a film for everyone, or possibly even most people. But it’s a truly fascinating, astonishingly unique and absolutely unpredictable vision; in a world where the movies – especially movies about real people – tend to be tedious cookie cutter bores, Capone dares to defy any expectation. That it refuses to look and behave the way you think a movie like this should look and behave is exactly why it’s so fascinating, and why in a few years people will be amazed that it ever got bad reviews.
If you enjoyed this piece consider becoming a subscriber at my Patreon to help support more writing like this. Any level of subscription is financially and emotionally meaningful.