CAPONE’s Madness Is A Breath Of Fresh Air

This is one weird-ass movie, folks.

What even is CAPONE?

Well, it's not really a biopic. Writer/director Josh Trank forgoes most of Al Capone's storied career in favor of focusing on just one year of the infamous gangster's life - the final year, at that. This is after Capone went to prison, after he came down with a scorching case of neurosyphilis that began to rot his mind from the inside out. CAPONE finds it titular mob boss a broken, jumbled, borderline incomprehensible mess. We glimpse visions of Capone's ugly past, but they, too, are broken and jumbled. 

Some people will be tempted to call CAPONE a horror film, what with its setting (a sprawling estate in Florida whose interiors call to mind nothing more than Stephen King's Overlook Hotel), its disturbing violence (get ready to see a man use a switchblade to remove his own eyeballs) and the way it will fill its audience with dread. Here's a movie where something terrible lurks around every corner, where ghosts from the past perform an all-out assault on Capone's senses for most of the film's 104 minutes. But it's not quite a horror film, either. 

Is it a gangster movie? Eh, not really. Oh, you'll get plenty of gangster imagery - Tommy guns, cigars, heavily-accented mobsters torturing one another, tough-talking government agents in fedoras and the like - but I'd argue that this is all window dressing. In the long run, I suspect we'll resign ourselves to classifying CAPONE within the mob movie genre, but it'll never feel quite right, and it's an observation that'll always be marred by an asterisk. If this is a gangster movie, it's one hell of an outlier. 

So what is CAPONE? Answers will run the gamut, but here's mine: fascinating. This is a go-for-broke movie on every level, from Tom Hardy's ferocious lead performance to Trank's aggressively non-conventional script to the grisly tableaux Trank gleefully parades Capone through as he tries to get inside this dying, increasingly-insane gangster's mind. The discourse surrounding this film has already become a reductive echo chamber of "lol Tom Hardy poops his pants" observations, which is pretty stunning when you consider how much more there is to chew on here. I'm honestly not sure what would motivate anyone to make this particular movie, but the fact that Josh Trank's the one behind it makes the whole thing even chewier. Given that, it's the sort of film you might feel compelled to decode, but I suspect that would ultimately prove to be a dead end. Capone can't trust his mind any more than we can trust the film itself (both are unreliable narrators of the highest order), and what clues we think we've found would likely turn out to be red herrings.

You see? Fascinating.

There's very little narrative to CAPONE: it's 1946, and Alphonse ("Fonzo" to virtually everyone in the film) Capone has been sent home early from prison thanks to his deteriorating mental condition. He, his family (including his supernaturally patient wife, played by a stellar Linda Cardellini), and a small army of gardeners, servants and handymen fill out a massive estate in Palm Island, Florida, where everyone does their best to navigate Fonzo's outbursts and occasional cruelty. He might sit for hours in a chair, chewing a cigar and looking out across the lake behind his house (Is someone watching him from the other side? Are those...binoculars?), only to suddenly explode in a fit of mush-mouthed obscenities. What caused the outburst? Who knows? Whatever's going on inside Capone's mind as he rides out this final year is not pretty, and it's everyone else's job to stay out of his way ... and, when necessary, to clean up after him. 

There are dangling plot threads. $10M which Capone may or may not have hidden somewhere on the property, and the various hangers-on and government stooges who seek to get their hands on it. An illegitimate son who appears to be in cahoots with some of those stooges. A doctor (Kyle MacLachlan) who's trying to avoid prison time. These threads exist but they're never fully explored or resolved; the vast majority of the film takes place within Capone's sizzling, collapsing brain, and what we find there is a swirling miasma of disconnected memories, simmering fears and rage. As crazy as this sounds, the film I kept thinking of while watching CAPONE was Pablo Larraín's JACKIE, another film which was more concerned with impressing a feeling and tone upon its audience than a traditional narrative (that CAPONE's score, gorgeously rendered by Run The Jewels' El-P, also sounds a little like Mica Levi's JACKIE score only serves to make the comparison feel less crazy). 

CAPONE also offers one of Tom Hardy's wilder performances. I understood maybe half of what Hardy was saying at any given time, but the meaning always came through. Hardy mumbles and rasps and rarely croaks out more than a few lines of dialogue at a time. He chases children through the darkened halls of his estate with his robe flapping madly around him. He sees things that are not there and tries to make sense of them. And, yes, Hardy's Capone shits his pants. More than once. This is a portrait of madness, and I submit to you that there are few working actors as qualified to portray "bug-nuts crazy" on the big screen as Tom Hardy. The repeated comparisons I've seen to a young Brando are not far off the mark (though, to be clear, Hardy's BRONSON performance still reigns supreme in this household). 

On a technical level, the film's very impressive. Capone's visions are intricate, weird and ominous, often calling to mind - I shit you not - the work of David Lynch (see also: the sequence wherein Capone enters a grand ballroom filled with gray balloons and a crowd of well-dressed revelers which parts to reveal Louis Armstrong singing "Blueberry Hill" on a darkened stage). To my eyes, nothing in either CHRONICLE (2012, good) or FANTASTIC FOUR (2015, not good) suggested that Trank had this kind of movie in him, and I found myself sort of flabbergasted by it. Whatever Trank went through over the past decade clearly impacted him in a major way, and I'm not just talking about his career. That CAPONE is the result of all that trouble is, once again, pretty fascinating, and I'm very eager to see what he does after this. I don't want the guy who wrote and directed CAPONE doing a BOBA FETT movie - I want him doing more of whatever this is, especially right now, when 90% of the shit we're seeing is so safe and middle-of-the-road. More weirdness, please. More big swings!

No, CAPONE will not be for everyone. In fact, CAPONE will not be for most people. But I suspect a certain subsection of film geekdom will love this movie. It's the same crew that went to bat for MOTHER! or THE COUNSELOR or THE NEON DEMON, films which challenge and provoke their audience and subvert expectations with a determined grin plastered across their faces. CAPONE has the feeling of a cult classic in the making, in other words, and in this context I offer that as a high compliment. Many of you will not enjoy it as much as I did, but those of you who do are going to be blown away. 

CAPONE is out now on all major VOD platforms, distributed by Vertical Entertainment.