In 1946, in the “final year of his life,” shambling monster Alphonse Capone (Tom Hardy, putrid) hobbles after a group of squealing children, his face a mottled testament to the syphilis also destroying his brain, his voice a cartoonish, sputum-y whine somewhere between “heartburn burp” and “full diaper getting stepped on.” The scene, the opening of Josh Trank’s Capone, is meant to be misleading, our fear for these innocent children transformed into affection once we realize that Capone (“Fonzo” to his friends) is just playing, chasing them around his vast Floridian mansion until they collapse into a doggy pile of giggles.
Fonzo’s wife Mae (Linda Cardellini) has welcomed family and friends and various mooks to celebrate Thanksgiving with the notorious crime boss. We meet Fonzo following a decade-long stint behind bars (released due to his medical condition), in the twilight of his life at only 47 and a mumbling, corpse-like specter of the once-feared mobster. A sopping-wet stogie forever etched into the crook of his dribbling jaw, Hardy as Capone is an unceasingly mounting spectacle of misery and idiotic violence and astounding fecal foley work. To drag us through so much shit—so much shit—Trank must want us to feel something for the guy. There can’t be any other reason why.
Humanizing the monster proves no small feat for Trank; we’re invited to wallow for the length of his feature in Fonzo’s slow physical dissolution. Hallucinations blend into reality as the FBI maintains full surveillance on the Capone estate, but why does Fonzo seem to be the only person who can see the man with the binoculars in the bushes? Even though the man is actually there? And the man who said he didn’t see the man with binoculars actually isn’t there? Or was he there in one scene and a figment of Fonzo’s deteriorating imagination in another? Meanwhile, Mae attempts to sell much of their assets to pay off all the money they owe the IRS—the movie using the extravagant and garish statues that litter their vast lawn to symbolize Fonzo’s pointless wealth, or something—and upstart FBI Agent Crawford (Jack Lowden) can’t shake the hunch that Al Capone may be faking this whole “rotting brain” thing until he does shake that hunch when the film drops him altogether, like one of many turds into Al Capone’s diaper.
Countless characters surface with seeming purpose to the plot but are quickly dispatched after a scene or two, their stories—whatever they were—gone completely unfinished. Capone’s doctor (Kyle MacLachlan) can’t weasel his way out of acting as an FBI informant, until he apparently does, off-screen. An old mob associate, Johnny (Matt Dillon), stops by to go fishing with Fonzo—to witness Capone use a shotgun to blow a very unconvincing animatronic alligator’s brains out—until he’s dumped from the movie with a twist you won’t see coming because the filmmaking logic that governs Capone’s dreamstate is so haphazardly executed, the whole enterprise so paceless, that Johnny’s presence becomes entirely meaningless. Same goes for Junior (Noel Fisher), Capone’s son, who shows up to express concern for his mother, share a cigarette, then fall completely out of the film’s universe. Same goes for Agent Crawford, whose investigation into Capone’s dubious mental acuity ends when, during a meeting, Capone shits his pants so loudly, makes such an incredibly stinky poop, that the Agent can’t help but give up. The look on Tom Hardy’s face, his pate glistening and his skin melting, after he’s emptied himself in front of three grown men is heartbreaking. It’s the funniest scene of the year.
It’s difficult not to find much of Capone funny: its wet fart noises, overpowering El-P’s blandly droning score; its dedication to misery; its surface-level flourishes of magical realism, such as an old-timey radio that regales Fonzo with audio plays of his most famous exploits; its harrowing ADR, comprised mostly of Tom Hardy grunting and gurgling gibberish; its weird mawkishness mixed with body horror; its unrelenting dullness. Throughout, Fonzo sinks deeper into the waking nightmares of his past misdeeds, suffering visions of murders he’s facilitated or betrayals he’s hatched. In more coherent films, these sequences would serve as moments of righteous clarity pushing a lost soul toward contrition before it’s too late. In Capone, the lost soul’s already fried, salvation wasted on a man too far gone to notice.
In that sense, Capone bears mentioning alongside Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, which similarly immerses us in the creeping death of a titular man whose character, at least as far as we can tell, goes completely unchanged by the pain he endures. The titular man of Capone is not Al Capone, it is Tom Hardy’s Al Capone’s body, the big fleshy unwieldy thing covered in makeup, wreathed by cigar smoke, redolent of diarrhea. Al Capone is not a character in Capone, he is what we talk about when what we’re really talking about is Tom Hardy’s Al Capone’s body, the only thing that finds resolution in the film. Rather than portraying a fascinating man at the end of his life, Capone amounts to a series of vignettes in which time is not marked by dramatic beats in an overarching character’s narrative but by the amount of shits Capone takes in his pants before there are no shits left to take in his pants and he dies.
Capone is, by all accounts, the movie Trank wanted to make, a passion project he patiently brought to life, wrote and directed and edited himself, decidedly not a thing most studios would want to get behind. It’s a handsome thing too, shot with obvious care and warmth by dependable hired hand Peter Deming. As Al Capone’s dying body, Tom Hardy gives his absurd all, struggling to emote through the carapace of both Trank’s ridiculous vision and the expectations of having Tom Hardy play Al Capone’s rotting corporeal form. Despite his formidable efforts, it is the worst thing he’s ever done. If Capone really is, by all accounts, the movie Trank wanted to make, one wonders if he remembers why.
Director: Josh Trank
Writer: Josh Trank
Starring: Tom Hardy, Matt Dillon, Linda Cardellini, Jack Lowden, Kyle MacLachlan, Noel Fisher
Release Date: May 12, 2020
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.