Patrick Preziosi on Josh Trank’s ‘Capone’ (2020)
Already stepped in the violent past of its volatile historical subject, Josh Trank’s Capone is neatly packaged with its own buzzy history, one that acts as perfect contextual fodder for the “uncompromising” project of a filmmaker who embodies Hollywood’s dual potential for rapid ascension and descension. The youngest director to ever open a movie at No. 1, then-26-year-old Trank dethroned then-27 Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) with his found-footage anti-superhero thriller debut, Chronicle (2012). A few years removed, suddenly came the swirl of rumours surrounding the doomed shoot of 2015’s Fantastic Four reboot, resulting in studio intervention and rushed reshoots to then open to a damning universal consensus of being an absolutely nonsensical, plodding film. Rumour has it Marvel don Stan Lee himself declined his signature cameo.
Now, with the heavyweight names attached, Capone was never going to be some stealth object to smuggle Trank back into the public’s good graces. Even with a release hampered by COVID-19 and an unceremonious dump to video-on-demand, Trank is still making the interview rounds, waxing proudly of the anger and nausea he cites as omnipresent in his film, eager to alienate those he’s deemed too unreceptive of his work in the past. The director speaks as if the entirety of Capone were body-horror, and not a vaguely hallucinogenic dispatch from the neurosyphilis-inflicted last years of Chicago gangster Alphonse “Fonz” Capone’s life.
Glimpses of Tom Hardy’s Capone, masked in prosthetics and in possession of a muttered shriek—which rings out like isolated vocal tracks from a black metal album—could be taken as Exhibit A for Trank’s claims. The actor will inevitably be constantly reminded of his marble-mouthed bellows as the villain Bane in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012), yet there’s something heartening in such a respected performer taking on a role of debased and similarly speech-obscured characteristics. Capone languishes, velvet bathrobe-agape and chomping a cigar, around his Florida mansion, flanked by family, security, doctors and nurses, and potentially the FBI, puking, choking and—as many online have gone to great lengths to point out—soiling himself. Hardy’s performance is defined by physical degradation and disgust, but within such, he’s given plenty of room to believably gesticulate whilst shredding his throat.
Capone, furloughed from prison because of his illness, watches his tokens of personal wealth––the gangster had a taste for gaudy garden statues––slip through his fingers just as his own thoughts and memories are. His own unreliable thought space has also regurgitated a remembered matter of pressing importance: there’s a buried $10 million somewhere on the estate. As Fonz is as lucid as often as he’s not, his wandering paranoia pushes this treasure hunt to the outer reaches of the film, as his daily morass is flecked with FBI agents in the bushes, and ineffectual phone calls from an estranged son. The polite way to describe Trank’s arhythmic juggling of diverging strands would be “patient”, although the actual result is narrative lumpiness.
And, unfortunately, all roads lead back to the wily, now-underdog Trank, who, in adopting the triple-threat position of writer-director-editor, manages to only facilitate a standard-issue sense of dramaturgy. Capone’s centrepiece is an expectedly hallucinatory, blandly greyscale dark night of the gangster’s mind, as Fonz stumbles after a lone-floating, golden balloon down into his basement, which is a speakeasy transplanted from his smuggling heyday. There are outbursts of violence, Hardy admirably warbles a blues standard to a rapt crowd, and he just never reaches that balloon, which taunts him, remaining consistently out of reach. Trank feigns heavily symbolic mise-en-scéne here, though what it chooses to impart is mostly bereft of such.
There’s only so much central and auxiliary talent can do in the company of such inept visual and narrative grammar, which makes Capone whiffing all the more frustrating, what with the work of Twin Peaks: The Return maestro Peter Deming behind the camera, and an original score from rapper/producer El-P all rendered anonymous. In the company of a scene-gobbling Hardy, the supporting cast is little more than cardboard as well; Matt Dillon’s presence as Capone’s direct predecessor Johnny Torio is largely a nonevent, Linda Cardellini and Kathrine Narducci are reduced to mob-wife stereotyping, and Al Sapienza is just… there. Kyle MacLachlan fares marginally better, channelling his signature agreeability into the put-upon Dr Karlock, saddled with the nigh-impossible task of maintaining Fonz’s health.
The exchanges between Fonz and Karlock play out as the richest segments of the film, as the ailing gangster is given no choice in accepting necessary––but otherwise demeaning––changes to his every day: an introduction of adult diapers to his wardrobe, and his always-present cigar swapped for a carrot of Bugs Bunny proportions. Whatever machismo is left is done in by a doctor encouraging the gangster to eat healthier and try drawing pictures. Trank seems to find actual reckoning with memory rather moot (The Irishman this is not), given how much of Capone is compartmentalised; for something that lumbers along, it’s startlingly sterile in deploying its thematic intent, with poor, dementia-addled Fonz acting as the receiver for all his film’s respectively choppy tributaries.
Capone is available now on-demand.