One of the first scenes in Josh Trank’s Capone shows the title character, played by Tom Hardy, explaining to his granddaughter at Thanksgiving why they celebrate the holiday. He goes into a long monologue about how his family was poor when he was young, but when it came to Thanksgiving, they always put on this big meal and went all out just to rub it in the faces of all the wealthier families they knew.
Without taking up the entire movie diagramming Al Capone’s rationale about why he was inspired to take on a life of crime, Trank brings us up to speed with a heavy chunk of dialogue. We see how the mobster’s bitterness towards his impoverished childhood still runs deep, something he’s always held on to – no matter how rich he got.
Capone, arguably the most notorious gangster in American history, now lives in Florida in a massive estate after being released from prison for health reasons and deemed no longer a threat. He suffers from dementia and syphilis, both in a perennial battle with his body over which will ultimately be responsible for his fateful end. He’s also running out of money, having to sell off all of his valuable works of art. Apparently, he’s hid $10 million somewhere, but in his current state, he can’t seem to remember where it is. Don’t bother asking Geraldo Rivera.
The government is secretly keeping watch over Capone, assuming he’s faking his poor mental health to stay out of prison. After all, the man is only 48-years-old. However, we see how he experiences constant hallucinations and a gradual decline of physical and mental competence of any kind.
We go back and forth between reality and imagination so much that we lose track of what’s actually happening and what’s important to remember. Trank’s strategy for revealing much of Capone’s depth in that early scene seems to betray him in the end. While we have some sort of inside look into the mobster’s psyche, we can’t help but shake the idea that the writer-director now feels like he doesn’t have to provide any actual character development.
Most of what progresses is a physical deterioration of Capone, the man himself, only it’s hard to gather psychological motivation when your protagonist has absolutely no cognition. It’s here when the film becomes a more conventional biopic about the deep subconscious, which isn’t nearly as interesting. There are a few outsider perspectives, such as Capone’s wife Mae (Linda Cardellini), but we don’t see enough from her perspective.
Trank (who also wrote the screenplay) has a perfect opportunity with his government agents subplot, however, we don’t see all that much of them at all. He attempts to create a story in their world, where Agent Crawford (Jack Lowden), the lead agent on the case, pleads to his supervisor why he’s still interested in Capone, despite the rest of the world having moved on. But outside of this one scene, there’s not enough depth given to his conflict or why it’s so important to him to crack open these mysteries on the crime boss.
I get Trank not wanting to garner unwarranted comparisons to Brian De Palma’s 1987’s mobster epic The Untouchables, but we could have used Crawford’s eyes to see these events take place, and his presence could have really grounded the film and given it a certain accessibility. At one point, the plot meanders painfully for 10+ minutes inside a dream sequence/hallucination, leaving us frustratingly with no clue what’s going on.
It’s more confusing than poetic, more self-indulgent than informative. Admittedly, the movie is well-shot and the way Trank directs certain scenes – even if they don’t quite add up – is effectively appealing. Perhaps the problems lie in the thin premise, itself.
The film sets us up for something of a big reveal, but never really delivers. It attempts to sympathize with the villain as he regresses to having the mindset of a child – albeit a very aggressive and violent child – although there aren’t enough moments where he becomes relatable. However, if you’ve ever wanted to see Al Capone poop his pants, here’s your chance.
Even when the story is at its most plodding, Hardy is a spectacle to watch and approaches the oft-morbid material with the wry humor and charm he brings to all of his roles. Even with what looks like ten pounds of makeup he manages to resemble the real Capone and even make the movie somewhat enjoyable at times. It’s a shame he wasn’t given better material to chew the scenery with.
In a way, Capone is less a straightforward biography about the infamous mobster’s life than it is an audience surrogate for somebody actually suffering with dementia. Thanks to Hardy’s unsurprisingly great turn as the titular gangster we feel his confusion, frustration, and a certain distancing from reality. As noble as these intentions may have seemed, they aren’t the more desirable qualities when watching a movie.