Despite all of the moving and shaking of the industry due to the coronavirus pandemic I was ecstatic when I learned that the new biopic “Capone” would still see a spring release on demand. The story of the notorious gangster Al Capone has always fascinated me and while several films have explored his infamy prior to prison few have delved into the complex tragedy of his post-prison existence where he suffered from and eventually died from complications with syphilis. Josh Trank, who directed the infamous “Fan4stic”, returns to the director’s chair for the first time since that famous flop also writing and editing this “untold” story about the final days of Al Capone with one of my favorite actors, Tom Hardy, in the titular role. There was a lot about this movie that fascinated me just by the cast, crew and concept alone making it a must see in my eyes. Then I saw it, and like many other viewers I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the final product. It’s certainly one of the most…odd biopics of modern cinema to say the very least.
As mentioned, “Capone” follows the famed Al Capone, played Tom Hardy, who is spending his final year of life at his home in Palm Island, Florida after his release from prison. Diagnosed with neurosyphilis, Capone’s mental state and health are deteriorating causing him to hallucinate, lose control of his bowels and motor functions, and become paranoid. This leads to a rift between him and his family, especially his wife Mae played by Linda Cardellini, as his attitude and personality take a toll on his loved ones. However, the illness is more frustrating for some because Capone claims to have hidden away a stash of money the location of which is fading away with his mental state. Meanwhile the FBI continues to monitor the notorious gangster hoping to find the money themselves or catch Capone in the act as they believe he lied about his diagnosis to gain early release.
“Capone” is a true mixed bag. In some ways it’s a fascinating study of an American legend’s final days but in other ways it’s an outstanding example of how creative license and overacting can sabotage a product. Let’s start with probably the most talked about element of the film, Tom Hardy. Hardy is an awesome actor. As I said he’s one of my personal favorites. But his take on Al Capone is both one of his most memorable and most decisive performances to date. On one hand you have to admire his dedication. Hardy is all in on portraying the deteriorating mental state of the infamous gangster and it’s probably the most challenging role he’s ever tried to take on. Hardy is by far the most committed performer on screen from start to finish and even provides a new entry in his growing list of strange voices that have become his calling card, even though the odd voice sounds like a man who breathed nothing but pure smoke for most of his life. But the performance is just so strange, either due to Hardy’s own creative choices or Trank’s direction, that at times Capone comes off as more uncomfortably hilarious than human.
There were definitely times I felt bad for the legendary gangster as a human being for sure, but for every moment that made me feel for the man I couldn’t help but feel like the film was almost insulting to Capone by unintentionally making light of his condition. I know finding the right balance to show the harsh realities of an illness without it coming off is ridiculous is hard, but this movie really fails to ride that fine line either taking itself too seriously or failing to properly portray moments with emotional depth. It makes the whole experience pretty jarring. Trank openly admitted that this film is an interpretation where creative liberties were taken and I can respect that. I also respect that the film tries to delve into the complications of a neurological disease and show viewers that even the most powerful of men are helpless to defeat age or nature, but showing this through defecation in a bed and swapping out the gangster’s famous cigar for a carrot just doesn’t feel right. It’s disturbing, but not in the way I think Trank might have intended.
Then we see these hallucinations from Capone, including flashbacks to one victim’s violent end, and it’s such a change from the rest of the film that it feels more out of place than like an insightful exploration of the mind behind the man. Again I get the idea, showing that Capone’s mental state is forcing him to come to grips with his violence, but it contradicts the tone the rest of the film seems to go for. I feel like this was a film with good intentions that ended up being a jumbled mess of ideas from both its star and director lacking proper focus or a solid identity to establish exactly what it’s trying to say about Capone and his disease. The flashback sequences for me are a highlight of the movie though, especially seeing Hardy’s more understated reactions to the events taking place as he portrays a man struggling to come to grips with his sins but also accepting that this was the life he chose. If the whole movie was about these revelations it could have been awesome, but sadly it’s not.
However, none of this really means the movie is unwatchable. In a strange, maybe even ironic way I really enjoyed this experience because it left me so confused as to what to make of it. I find films like this, ones so uneven that I legitimately can’t decide if I love or hate it, are the most fun to review. It forces me to think outside the box as a critic and a viewer and few movies over the last year have challenged me the way as “Capone”. I was genuinely fully engrossed in the experience either to see how insanely weird it was going to get or how darkly honest it would become. I think in the end though my biggest problem with the film comes down to the fact that Trank and Hardy make a noble attempt to present the struggles of the man but do little to help us effectively relate to him or to understand who he was beyond his illness. We’re shown the literal result of his disease and small insights into his regret and inner demons but there’s a lack of emotional pay off and complexity that such a story requires to reach the next level. Everything from Hardy’s performance to Trank’s writing and direction is so uneven that the good moments are always complimented by odd or terrible ones with some so-bad-it’s-good moments mixed in for spice making this an entertaining but ultimately flawed mess.
“Capone” is either a masterpiece of understated symbolism or a horrible missed opportunity and I feel like it has the potential to be a fine example of the perfect middle-of-the-road result. Hardy’s performance is something to be seen either for a good laugh or as a testament to his commitment to a role while Trank’s writing and direction is far from enough to help him recover from “Fan4stic” but it’s better than the aforementioned stain on the superhero genre. I’ll look back on “Capone” as probably one of the most confusing movies I’ve watched in some time and I actually think that only helped me enjoy the movie that much more. It makes it worth watching again to see if there’s something I missed that could redeem or further detract from the experience. One thing’s for sure, “Capone”, like the man himself, is either too fascinating to ignore or too flawed to appreciate depending on your point of view.