Outside of Shakespeare, there are three recurring characters in the history of cinema: Australia’s Ned Kelly, America’s Al Capone and world cinema’s auteurs. In the production of American films the auteur of two storylines, the Sundance-wunderkind and the comeback kid. There’s a third and less common storyline among Hollywood productions and that’s the studio director. If they receive the title auteur, it’s usually given posthumously by theorists (see: Leo McCarey), because the studio director themself wasn’t the story of their work while alive. For director Josh Trank (Chronicle, Fantastic Four), the stories of his troubled productions take center stage. One of those stories is his version of Venom that never got off the ground. He also left a Star Wars project and his Fantastic Four reboot is a legendary failure. After a rough second half of the 2010s, it seems Trank is taking Stephen Galloway’s advice by eating humble pie, going back to his filmmaking roots (he wrote, directed, and edited Capone), and writing a great script. Unfortunately, the wunderkind to studio director to comeback kid narrative isn’t enough to make Capone a great movie.
Capone’s opening is promising. A title screen tells us Fonzo (Capone’s nickname and the original title for the movie) was released from prison early because of dementia caused by neurosyphilis. Tom Hardy (Venom, Dunkirk) lumbers down a hallway in what appears to be a dreamlike stupor, but he’s actually enjoying time with the kids in his family on Thanksgiving. It’s followed by another scene at the family’s dinner table where Fonzo tells his family’s criminal origin story in lieu of the Thanksgiving story he was entreated to tell. The appearance of Linda Cardellini (Dead to Me, Brokeback Mountain) as Fonzo’s wife Mae Capone brings to mind her role as Dolores in Green Book, as another gangster’s wife. Sadly, in Green Book and Capone, Cardellini is completely underutilized and acts as a steady rock for Capone as he rots on screen.
Rot is the best intransitive verb to describe Tom Hardy’s performance as Capone. The last time I recall human feces being used to show the equalizing force of excrement, decay, and death is Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, where a couple have an argument in the nude, when the husband declares from the toilet: “The only time we’re equal is when we poop.” Hardy’s Capone defecates on himself in bed with Mae, pisses himself while sitting with his son in a parlor room, and defecates again when the feds are questioning him about the whereabouts of an allegedly hidden ten million dollars. The scene in bed is the most visually extreme but says little about Capone, or us, other than he’s losing control of his bowels. These don’t allow for the empathy Trank is going for; instead, these bursts of feculence take you out of the movie, and pushed this writer to interpret, to the chagrin of Trank’s peers, that Capone is more about Trank’s experience in Hollywood than Fonzo’s last days. Indeed, everyone on a movie set is making the movie. They’re making it in service of the lead creative’s vision, and Trank is the residual claimant of Capone.
To Peter Deming’s credit (David Lynch’s go-to cinematographer), he blends reality with Capone’s fevered dreams seamlessly. There’s a prolonged dance sequence that feels like a scene from The Shining that sets the delirious tone of Capone’s dementia-riddle mind. In that scene Capone stalks his inner child, who’s holding a golden balloon, in what seems intended as a reference to The Red Balloon but the unsteady nature of the moment calls Stephen King’s It to mind as a stronger reference point. Unfortunately, outside of the few dreamlike sequences, there aren’t many memorable or kinetic scenes in the film. The flatness of the picture doesn’t provoke the viewer like the staid but rotting images in Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV. These images provoke you to check your watch as they fail to capture your attention.
While Hardy chews the scenery of his mind, his co-stars Jack Lowden, Matt Dillon, Kyle MacLachlan, alongside already mentioned Linda Cardellini add to Capone’s paranoia, but act as set dressings to keep audiences saying, “Oh, I recognize them.” I don’t know how Josh Trank managed to make a Capone movie about himself, underuse a brilliantly assembled supporting cast, and create images that are fleeting to the memory as Capone’s own, but he’s done it. Perhaps the fleeting nature of diseased memory is Trank’s point, but it isn’t poignant enough to make audiences care when they can watch The Irishman on Netflix without having to fork over their covid-19 Trump bucks to see it. In our brave new world of theatrical movies on VOD, richness of image and meaning is as important as when we watch movies in theater. You won’t find it in Capone.
Capone is now available On Demand from Vertical Entertainment.