Tom Hardy has made a habit of many things: altering his voice, obscuring his face, or wearing all manner of subtle or not-so-subtle makeup to rob himself of those movie star good looks. He does all three in Capone (formerly known as Fonzo), Josh Trank’s gross-out character piece about the final year in the life of notorious gangster Al Capone, as neurosyphilis ravaged his body and mind and made him stark-raving mad. More demented psycho study than straightforward crime thriller, Hardy’s memorable performance elevates an occasionally pointless film.
Capone is intended as a subversive portrait of Scarface, to reveal him in his twilight, at his weakest point, and see what happens. That’s part of the problem, because beyond a man possibly reckoning with his past, not much happens. There’s a missing stash of ten-million dollars, money never found but sought out by a whipper-snapper FBI spook (Dunkirk’s Jack Lowden) with a moral axe to grind, and there’s a lost son looking for connection with his dying father. Neither is particularly meaningful and only adds to the feeling that Capone is a mere assortment of incomplete or incoherent ideas. Trank’s film is often found spinning its wheels exploring Capone’s dementia. The man is either lucid and asleep, speaking and shambling from one deluded nightmare to the next, or he’s loopy and awake, unable to to do much in the wake of a devastating stroke that compromises mind, body, and bowels.
Some of the more compelling moments suggest that Capone’s fragile mind is wracked with the knowledge of his past crimes, of his sordid history. Trank often blurs the lines between reality and insanity, melting past and present so that we sometimes don’t know the difference. These waking nightmares are riveting to witness, in part due to Hardy and in part due to Trank’s filmmaking. He has an uncanny ability to mimic the foggy emotional and illogical atmosphere of dream-making, where one strange encounter bleeds into the next, where a glamorous ball and sexy detour only leads to bloodshed or dead men telling more tales. Matt Dillon pops in and out as a former business partner and friend of Al’s, a mysterious fellow whose screen time offers the most in terms of insight. The film is handsomely mounted, crisp digital photography and dapper costume design going a long way to selling that tone of fantasy and theatricality.
However, there are very few details of psychology or poignancy gleaned from watching this same story play out again and again, where Fonzo’s gonzo activities are revealed to be nothing more than hallucinations. Any tension wrought by such moments is eventually undermined by the question of is it real or not, followed by extended stays of Capone in bed or in a chair grunting at his wife (Linda Cardellini) and raving at spooks in the woods, confirming that what transpired was, in fact, not real. This is where Hardy’s performance is an asset, no matter how campy or hammy it might become. Long stretches of Capone are spent with a camera studying Hardy at work, as he lays about and his eyes flit about. He’s never less than interesting to watch, his mumbling voice a cross between Bugs Bunny and a classic New Yawk gangster.
If anything, I learned more about neurosyphilis than I did the history and personal life of Al Capone. Trank has pieced together a film for Tom Hardy to stretch his legs (figuratively, not at all literally) and go for broke. The resulting narrative leaves us with little else except a tangent or two and lurid ruminations on what might have been going through Capone’s head as he declined both mentally and physically. Fortunately for Trank, watching Tom Hardy go for broke is more entertaining than most movies.