Reviews have always been a strange business for filmmaker Josh Trank. His first film, the scrappy found-footage superhero drama “Chronicle,” was a commercial success that earned stellar reviews from outfits as seemingly disparate as The New Yorker and the niche blog Fanboys of the Universe. His followup, the 2015 “Fantastic Four” reboot, is destined to go down as one of contemporary Hollywood’s biggest bombs, a reviled big screen disaster that earned terrible reviews and worse box office receipts. And yet for Trank, the reviews — both good and bad — remain at such odds with his own vision that it was difficult for them to land with any real force.
That’s not the case with his latest, the Tom Hardy-starring “Capone,” Trank’s long-in-the-works return to the big screen, an anti-gangster movie that dismantles the mythos of Al “Scarface” Capone by chronicling his (literally) messy final year. Trank didn’t just write and direct the film, he also edited it himself and even appears in one of its more talked-about scenes (yes, it involves Hardy as a near-death Capone shitting his pants in front of a group of FBI agents). For Trank, a filmmaker who has long felt disconnected from the critical response to his work, the expectation might be that bad reviews would hurt even more this time. They don’t.
At the time IndieWire spoke with Trank, the film ranked at a 52 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — technically “Rotten,” though with a slight edge to positive reviews — and it’s now ticked downward to a 44 percent rating. That’s fine by Trank. “I don’t want to say I’m not surprised,” Trank said. “It was hard to tell what the reactions were going to be, because from where I stand, I love the movie deeply. I love the movie so much, I’m so proud of it. There’s nothing anybody could tell me about this movie that would make me feel any less of the amount of love that I have for it.“
As Trank said, the reviews for “Fantastic Four,” while almost universally vicious (the film currently has a 9 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, clocking 234 negative reviews to just 23 positive ones) didn’t seem to be talking about the stuff he felt actual ownership over.
“The bad reviews on ‘Fantastic Four,’ for me, were not talking about anything that I felt a connection to, because it was a lot of stuff that I didn’t have anything to do with,” he said. “The stuff that [reviews were] talking about that was a result of my own work, I felt wasn’t even presented in the film in such a way that I could raise my hand and be like, ‘Yeah, I did that.’ I did it, but I couldn’t look at those reviews and hold them up to my face like a mirror.”
When it comes to “Capone,” that feeling has totally reversed. Even the bad reviews feel fine to Trank, because at least they are reflecting the film he set out to make. That’s a new feeling for him.
“But with the worst reviews of this movie, they do feel like a mirror, but in a way that doesn’t make me feel ashamed,” Trank said. “It just makes me feel like I’m on the right track with this. I don’t know if that sounds smug or anything, but it is a movie that has everything right there for you to see. He’s shitting himself. He’s mentally deteriorating. It’s not pretty. It’s an ugly, uncomfortable movie. If that makes you angry, then I guess it worked. That doesn’t bother me. I’m not worried about a Rotten Tomatoes percentage or anything.”
Asked if he thought the reviews were due to the film or lingering bad sentiments towards Trank himself, the filmmaker paused before answering, “Probably a combination of both.” That Trank’s return to the big screen isn’t the usual fare, certainly not another superhero outing, perhaps contributed to the negative reviews, too, many of which Trank noted seemed “angry” in his reading.
“We’re exploring the side of somebody’s life that is really uncomfortable,” he said. “This is not a wish fulfillment gangster movie. There’s no glorification of bootlegging and gangster enterprising. This is a film that, in a very ugly way, is deconstructing an iconic masculinity from the moment the movie starts and until it ends. Is it hard to watch? I don’t know. It’s not hard for me to watch. … It’s either, you get it and you’re in for this ride and you’re a part of it and you also embrace the fun, crazy schlock factor of it, which is incredibly intentional, or you don’t and it bothers you and annoys you. And I’m fine with that.”
“Capone,” originally titled “Fonzo” after the infamous gangster’s family nickname, follows a syphilis-ridden shell of a human during his final year. Capone was initially sent to prison at the age of 32, but was paroled just seven years later for compassionate reasons. Mentally deteriorated (some estimated his intellectual capacity was on par with a 12-year-old child) and physically weakened beyond all assistance, Capone spent his ailing final years in Florida. Trank’s film follows that year in meticulous, wacky, often disgusting detail.
“I think that there’s room for more strange, off-putting films that feel more akin to something you would see in an art gallery that kicks you in the balls a little bit and makes you kind of think,” Trank said. “It’s OK if you feel offended, that’s good, it’s good to get that emotion out of people. I don’t think that those kinds of movies have been a part of our conversation recently enough so that a lot of people can really know what they’re looking at.”
Trank has no illusions that the gloves-off biopic is the weirdest film in the world, but he’s very aware that some of its biggest choices — like, yes, two extremely vivid scenes in which Hardy as Capone shits his pants — are out of step with what most audiences are expecting out of their movies.
“There is a whole world of bizarre cinema out there, and I don’t think that ‘Capone’ is the most bizarre out of all of them, but we certainly made our choices,” he said. “We certainly decided to have Tom shit his pants right there, front and center, twice. There was no confusion on my end as to whether or not people would react to it in a visceral way.”
The tough stuff has always intrigued Trank. Even his critically beloved “Chronicle,” a 2012 hit that Trank made before he hit 30, was laced through with ruminations on the ugly side of humanity. At least, that’s what Trank was going for, and when reviews for it (the positive kind!) hit before the film’s very successful February release (it made nearly $130 million in domestic bucks on a $12 million budget), he was dismayed to see even the most glowing critical appraisals missed the point of what he was making.
“I felt like I didn’t know who they were applauding, because I didn’t feel like what people were reacting to in ‘Chronicle’ and what they loved about ‘Chronicle’ were the things that drove me to make ‘Chronicle,'” Trank said. “A lot of what people were reviewing were the ideas of getting cool superpowers when you’re a teenager, the things I was driven to make that movie [about] were the themes of child abuse, bullying, all of the uncomfortable, painful moments that drove Dane DeHaan’s character into a violent, dangerous place. That’s the kind of stuff I thought about, and that’s what drove me every single day.”
Three years later, “Fantastic Four” was released, seemingly killing Trank’s superhero status in the process. The film lost millions of dollars, effectively ended a planned series, and became an instant punchline. Blame was thrown around on both sides: Trank took to social media to say that the film had been ruined by studio meddling, reports held that the filmmaker’s bad on-set behavior was to blame for necessary rewrites and reshoots. The filmmaker later left a planned “Star Wars” spinoff and appeared to disappear from the Hollywood fray.
In other words, you could say he was thrown into “movie jail,” like many filmmakers before him who made such massive stinkers that it seemed impossible for them to ever fight their way back to the top of the industry heap. And yet, here he is, with another movie. It’s just not the kind of film that, even five years ago, everyone expected him to make.
“I don’t know, I think maybe I’m still in a version of movie jail,” he said. “I think it’s a term that relates to big studio work like. It’s not like anybody’s knocking down my door from one of the big studios to be like, ‘hey, here’s Hercules!’ I’m not getting offered those kinds of things where I once was. I would aspire to be an independent filmmaker. I think if you’re an independent filmmaker, nobody can put you in movie jail.” He added, “This is the kind of movie that you make in movie jail.”
So, no, studios aren’t pounding on Trank’s door the way they used to, but for a filmmaker who seems just fine with taking his licks and moving forward no matter the odds, that’s okay. And it doesn’t mean that he’s making any big proclamations about what’s next, he’s just realized that there might be a different way.
“It isn’t necessarily the stuff that I don’t want to do, but it’s not the stuff that I need to do,” Trank said of studio projects. “If suddenly the ravens descended and brought me something that made sense from a big studio and it was with the right set of people, I don’t know why I would turn something down like that. It’s always great to make a movie, but that’s not what I need to do to survive or to live.“
“Capone,” a Vertical Entertainment release, is available on VOD today.