It seems almost incredible that we are living in an age when the media conspire with a particular political wing to control thought and behavior — and imagination — so completely that even the arts work against us. That is the surprise revelation of Josh Trank’s Capone, starring Tom Hardy.
Director-writer Trank recounts the final year of Capone’s life, when the notorious gangster, released from prison when no longer deemed a threat, suffers from neurosyphilis contracted at age 15 and experiences physical and psychological deterioration. That teenage detail is crucial to Trank’s project. The 36-year-old filmmaker has struggled through the comic-book-movie era geared to the adolescent market without being able to achieve a hit, even though that genre sets a very low bar for artistic success. Trank shows more sophistication than the Marvel kids deserve.
In his extraordinary 2012 debut Chronicle, Trank played out the dangerous extremes of youthful zeal in dreamlike genre tropes from sci-fi to monster flicks. (Hormonal excess and spiritual confusion was the subtext.) His follow-up, Fantastic Four, was awkwardly told and less poetic; its failure was a setback, although its major fault was that the poignant Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) subplot simply came before the Black Panther sensation.
In Capone, Trank takes on the gangster-movie vogue. He forces Capone himself and generations of his admirers entranced by such movies as The Godfather, Scarface, even TV’s The Sopranos, into unexpected moral confrontation. Karma hits the killer-bootlegger with a vengeance: Haunted by regrets, he can’t control his bodily functions, and the family hanging on at his palatial Florida estate live like deposed royalty in exile.
The hip-hop generation, which took gangster movies to heart, channeling their crack- and Reagan-era social frustration, identified with revenge and bravado but was not big on consequences. Scarface’s explosive finale worked aberrantly and was enjoyed for its explosive self-destruction, like Cagney in White Heat, while the increasingly secularized culture rejected the ethnic and ethical reckoning of The Godfather, Part III. TV’s The Sopranos came along to confirm this moral abandonment. Decadent hipster Luca Guadagnino has just announced that Scarface will be his next remake; luckily, Capone is streaming at the same time.
So Trank’s Capone brings back classical moral examination. Critic John Demetry cited Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui; Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Pirandello’s Henry IV also come to mind. Best of all, Tom Hardy dares the contemplation and decrepitude that Brando played in The Godfather and yokes it to the suffering that Pacino exhibited in The Godfather, Part III. British Hardy dramatizes the guilt that American actors avoid. As the most talented and charismatic actor of the millennium, Hardy displays his gifts modestly (often hidden by masks) and shrewdly: Sickly pale Capone has a carrot stuck in his face where a stogie used to be, his eyes shining with ruined romance and pathetic masculine prowess.
When Hardy’s Capone is supine, he looks like a corpse haunted by old memories of sex (tied to greed and a rumored illegal stash), wronged colleagues (Matt Dillon gouging out his own eyes like Oedipus Rex), and a radio broadcast reenacting Capone’s St. Valentine’s Day massacre. “He has full-blown dementia,” says an FBI agent monitoring Capone’s encampment, and this fact is unmistakable, as we see in Capone’s detachment from family members (especially Linda Cardellini, playing his loyal, anguished wife), even when the doddering killer picks up a solid-gold machine gun to mow down phantom enemies.
Trank’s Capone rocks the expectations of COVID-19’s homebound viewers seeking entertainment alternatives. But we’re stuck in a difficult cultural spot. The validation of bad behavior on reality TV — including Representative Adam Schiff concocting his own felonious gangster fantasy about the president and shamelessly reading it into the congressional record — has left many virtually incapable of reading character. Trank presses this point as Brecht, Jarry, and Pirandello would. At an un-romanticized family dinner, the Capones ask themselves, “What are you thankful for?”
Capone is what revisionist filmmaking should be.