A necrotic gangster biopic that doubles as one of modern cinema’s most unforgiving self-portraits, Josh Trank’s “Capone” does for Scarface what Gus Van Sant’s “Last Days” did for Kurt Cobain: Not a lot, and in excruciating detail. But while both films offer a bleak look at the final chapter of a fabled rock star’s life, this one has the chutzpah to be so much bleaker; if Van Sant’s movie was strung out, Trank’s is utterly zombified.
Hardy once again combines the fearless commitment of early Marlon Brando with the utter unintelligibility of much older Marlon Brando, embodying the legendary crime boss like a rotting corpse. Alphonse Gabriel Capone (aka “Fonzo” or “Fonz”) has been suffering from neurosyphilis for more than 25 years when the film begins, and the skin is starting to peel off his face; the opening title card tells us that “this is the final year of his life,” but one minute with the guy is enough to suggest that we’re already too late. Between his Swamp Thing skin, Voldemort eyes, and a gurgling voice that makes it sound like everyone the mobster ever killed somehow managed to die in his throat, this Capone is a far cry from the fearsome kingpin who ran Chicago in a pinstripe suit. He’s paranoid, feverish, and shits himself in spectacular fashion. Twice.
Needless to say, Trank and Hardy don’t shy away from the premature senility of a once-indomitable American figure. On the contrary, “Capone” is the cloistered story of a “great” man reckoning with the distant memory of his own self-image as he mutters around his Florida mansion and tries to find some measure of truth between his legend and the lies he told in order to maintain it. These days, Capone can hardly recognize himself in the mirror, let alone remember the notorious icon he used to be.
One scene — a poignant grace note in a film that spends most of its time gawking at its namesake like a laboratory experiment gone wrong — shows Fonzo listening to a radio drama about his old gangland exploits as if the program were about someone else. Did he really hide $10 million where the police can’t find it? And if so, is it possible that he forgot the exact location? Did he have a child out of wedlock (as his estranged son Junior begins to suspect), or is the little boy he keeps drawing supposed to be someone else?
Trank — who wrote, directed, and edited this film on the cheap — understands the dislocation of getting lost in your own shadow in visceral terms. If you know his name, you know his story: “Chronicle” turned the twentysomething filmmaker into an overnight mega-success, and then “Fantastic Four” reduced him to a pariah just as fast. There’s a fine line between “flame on!” and flame out, and the narrative that emerged from the set of that disastrous superhero movie painted Trank as a self-obsessed megalomaniac who lorded over a Marvel property like some kind of millennial John Milius.
Trank has said that he relates to Capone’s vertiginous fall from grace, the rage of being subsumed by your own myth until you can no longer tell which parts of it are real. “Capone” makes that parallel all too palpable through its aversion to a clear narrative and its fetishistic attention to decay, and it does so without an ounce of self-pity. Hardy’s grotesque performance doesn’t invite any sympathy for the devil, but it hobbles him in a way that renders Scarface human. Capone was a prisoner in his own rotting body who spent the final year of his life trapped in the gilded cage he confused for a palace, but Trank insists that he was sentenced to the unparalleled indignity of suffering from himself.
Yet Trank falls short of conveying what that actually feels like. The clever opening scene, in which a paranoid Capone is revealed to be playing a game of hide-and-seek with the brood of little kids who live on his property, shows us everything there is to see about this fading giant, a lion with nothing left but his roar. It illustrates how he moves through the halls of his gaudy house like a Scooby-Doo villain who’s trying to maintain his disguise; relatives, employees, and various hangers-on pack into the backgrounds as they sustain the Capone legacy by sheer inertia. But while other, similarly constricted biopics have fought to restore a measure of selfhood to their mythical subjects (Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” endures as the best recent example of its kind), “Capone” is a slipstream in the other direction. The further that Fonzo spirals into his own dementia, the harder it is to care where he’s gone.
Long, repetitive shots of Hardy chomping on a cigar and staring off into the middle distance give way to unmotivated flashbacks, hostile delusions, and even a “Being John Malkovich”-esque trip through Capone’s heyday that reveals more about Trank’s budget than it does the gangster’s shriveling id (it’s telling that Capone’s only real moment of self-recognition comes in a scene where he watches a movie in his screening room, and sees himself reflected in another famous character’s search for courage). It often feels like Trank is too seduced by the go-for-broke commitment of his leading man, as the film regularly confuses rubber-necking for nuance in a way that conflates torture with catharsis (e.g. Matt Dillon, playing Capone’s best friend, gouging both of his eyeballs out in a fantasy sequence that amounts to nothing but a very literal sight gag).
A handful of supporting characters try to charm their way closer to the heart of the movie — most notably Capone’s long-suffering wife, played by a stoic Linda Cardellini in a thankless role that drips with unwrung schadenfreude. Unfortunately, Trank fails to reconcile the rest of the cast with the subjectivity of Fonzo’s story. Capone’s underwritten son (Noel Fisher) jokes that his dad is like a zoo animal, but the film can’t decide if the gangster’s extended family is part of the exhibition. “The only thing that matters is how a man treats his family,” someone offers, but “Capone” pays them as little mind as Capone does himself. The ever-watchable Kyle MacLachlan shows up as Capone’s doctor, but can’t find any of the same electricity that he brings to this summer’s forthcoming “Tesla.”
This hollow if perversely watchable exercise in self-annihilation builds to a violent finale that finally makes good on the biopic’s sordid potential, as Trank shoots his way out of oblivion with a sequence in which Capone does the same. It’s a climax that manages to blur the line between truth and legend, and to clarify Trank’s ambition of making a movie about how one tends to infect the other. Nevertheless, the director and his subject are ultimately buried together in the same boat: We’re made to understand their suffering, but given no reason to root for their salvation.
Vertical Entertainment will release “Capone” on VOD on Tuesday, May 12.