In a recent video essay, Luís Azevedo spells out how the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman signaled the dismantling of a genre the filmmaker helped to establish, in similar fashion to Clint Eastwood burying the corpse of the Western in Unforgiven. These films didn’t mark the end of a genre, because genre cannot end, but they signaled a moment in which the respective directors ripped the façade off a legacy of tropes that were showing age, and in turn acknowledged their own mortality. Josh Trank is a young filmmaker still, but one who experienced career decline much earlier than Scorsese or Eastwood, due to the disappointing 2015 film Fantastic Four. Trank’s latest feature, Capone, is more akin to a late-career production.
Set in Florida during the last year of Al Capone’s life, Trank’s film offers a thoroughly engaging viewing experience, even though none of it registers as great filmmaking. In terms of defacing organized crime, the storyline doesn’t add anything revelatory that the The Irishman didn’t already explore. But for all its faults, Capone remains an interesting character study, with Tom Hardy in the lead role opposite Linda Cardellini as the focal gangster’s wife, Mae Capone.
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Capone plays around with genre and takes its inspirations more from body-horror films than gangster movies. The opening sequence of Capone aka “Fonse” creeping around a sinisterly-lit hallway carrying a baseball bat — with a soundscape of quiet creaks and heavy breaths — has more in common with The Shining than any of the influential crime dramas released by Scorsese, Howard Hawks, Jean-Pierre Melville or Michael Mann.
The personal psychosis that Fonse experiences — from schizophrenia to intense paranoia to haunting memories of the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — is displayed with a racking anxiety and a disgusting surplus of fluids. It’s quite effective and harkens back to many of David Cronenberg’s deeply-terrifying and surrealistic films, specifically Naked Lunch with its damp and slimy canvas. It’s one thing to tear down a gangster in his lowest moments by revealing his timidity and loneliness (as the final shot of The Irishman so perfectly does), but Trank goes full tilt in Capone. He not only takes the subject down several notches, but also transfers the utter vileness of the character into physical malformations.
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None of Trank’s visuals work as well without the full commitment of Hardy, a grumbler extraordinaire. In yet another barely-legible performance, the English actor is as physically intense as ever, save his star-making role in Bronson. Hardy provides something alien, both amusing and disgusting, a unique cross between Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance in The Shining and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Bug in Men in Black. The limping posture, the drooping face, the dying eyes, the drips of sweat squeezing out of pores — Fonse is a bug in human skin, except there’s no mask-off moment for Hardy in Capone, no catharsis from the evil within.
It’s hard to adequately gauge any of the other performances because Hardy swallows Capone almost entirely whole. It’s also quite a good distraction from the fact that Trank’s storyline never comes together. By the end, there’s nothing to grasp, aside from the sensations. The most interesting bits of Capone lie in moments of brilliant inspiration and fingerprints of madness: betrayal, power, denial of mortality and senseless explosions of violence. Capone never really comes together, but all the right ingredients, in their separate packaging, are obvious.
Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.