There are two interesting films buried within Josh Trank’s “Capone.” One is a sober drama aboutthe mental and physical deterioration of a former mob boss and the impact it had on his family in the year leading up to his death. The other is a psychological horror movie aboutthe dementia-laden hallucinations of an aged criminal racked with guilt.
The former would be similar to Rupert Everett’s 2019 film “The Happy Prince,” which also chronicled the post-imprisonment illness and death of a famed historical figure, but replacing Oscar Wilde with Al Capone, played here by Tom Hardy. The emotional weight would rely on seeing this once powerful and commanding man reduced to a shell of his former self and the impact of this on his wife (Linda Cardelini) and son (Noel Fisher).
The latter is intense, trippy, and more-than-a-little confusing, akin to the work of David Lynch. The audience struggles to draw the line between what is real and what isn’t, and different interpretations become fodder for debate. The imagery is uncanny, offsetting, occasionally dark, and symbolic. Not for the faint of heart, but a compelling and intelligent horror offering. The film could focus on Hardy and the more enigmatic characters in his presence, such as his old friend Johnny (Matt Dillon) and the many people he’s wronged in his past.
“Capone” has elements of both these films within it. The problem is that they are so different in their tones and narrative focuses that the overall product is a messy, confusing, uncomfortable watch. Had Trank chosen one thematic direction and wholly committed, the film could have been quite good. But as it stands, the film’s badness is only compounded by its squandered potential.
“Capone” explores the final year of the once powerful and dangerous mobster Al Capone, as he grapples with dementia and paranoia due to untreated neurosyphilis. His wife and son attempt to keep him as sane and comfortable as possible, FBI agents trail him, to see if his insanity is feigned or genuine, and an old friend who wants to help Capone discern the hiding place of his stashed $10 million. All the while, he is facing increasingly bizarre, violent, and confusing hallucinations of both his old life as a bootlegger and the harm he has done.
The film’s main problem is that it does not know what it wants to be: Crude and oppressively bleak scenes of Hardy becoming incontinent or losing his temper in rare moments of lucidity are juxtaposed with hauntings of mutilated bodies, likely the victims of a younger Capone.
There is an incredibly long scene in the middle of the film in which Capone walks through his house as he encounters his past. First, he’s the life of the party at a wild speakeasy, singing with the band and drinking and dancing with the crowd. There’s something off about the party, but just what is imperceptible. He is brought to a back room, where a mysterious flapper who is clearly not his wife comes onto him. Again, something is off about this interaction. Finally, he arrives at a warehouse, where he and associates brutally murder a man whose face is obscured by a mask.
In a more enigmatic, psychological film, this scene would have been rather interesting. The discomfort of the memories could be leaned into until the climactic murder shatters the growing tension. But, as the film stands, the sequence is overwhelmingly indulgent and slows the story for no discernible reason. Trank clearly thinks the film is a lot smarter and more artistic than it actually is.
“Capone” is only Trank’s third film in the director’s chair. The first was the spectacular superhero found-footage flick “Chronicle,” which explored the good and evil that could come from ordinary high schoolers developing telekinetic powers. His followup was the deservedly reviled “Fantastic Four” reboot, which was an absolute train wreck.
Trank blamed studio interference for ruining the film and, following the goodwill generated by “Chronicle” and a fandom’s love of blaming studios for a boring movie, many were poised to agree with him. However, I’d posit that “Capone” could have used some serious interference to tighten the script, also penned by Trank, and fix the tonal inconsistencies that bog down the film.
Trank is not the sole person to blame for the inconsistency. Hardy likewise gives a performance that is both excellent and unimpressive depending on the scene. The quieter, more nuanced scenes are brought to life by the powerhouse actor, whose expressive eyes convey overwhelming emotion in the subtlest facial expression. However, the larger moments, particularly brief instances of violence and screaming, ring hollow, as Hardy appears to be going through the motions, something of which the actor can rarely be accused.
Hardy has been the best part of several bad films in recent years. His committed and insane performance made “Venom” not just watchable but thoroughly enjoyable. His turn as both Kray twins in the potential-laden but disappointing “Legend” likewise elevated the dull and confusing script. Here, Hardy lacked the overwhelming commitment that renders even his most insane or undeserving roles into engaging and human characters. There were moments of skill, but the bold, loud scenes were empty.
I was pleasantly surprised by Noel Fisher’s supporting turn as Capone’s son, Junior. One of the most genuine and heartfelt scenes in the film was when Junior came to talk with his father, who at this point had mentally regressed to the level of a child. His thinly-veiled heartbreak and attempts to maintain a connection with his father were touching and impressive, supported by one of Hardy’s better moments. Fisher has easily been one of the best parts of Showtime’s “Shameless,” and this role, in a substantial departure from the dramedy, signals great things to come.
“Capone” was a frustrating mess of convoluted plot lines, combatting themes, and missed opportunities. What should have been a trippy horror or a heartbreaking drama meddles between the two in a meandering film that doesn’t know what it wants to be.