I’ve always found it fascinating that a notorious gangster was able to rise to a level of popularity to the point of being parodied in not only filmed media but cartoons for kids. Capone is the latest attempt to ground Al Capone in some level of reality, but Capone (Fonse to his friends) was such a larger-than-life figure, that I can understand watching star Tom Hardy go big in a manner not too far from Robert De Niro in The Untouchables, let alone Rod Steiger and Ben Gazzara, among others. All of this in mind, framing this film around the final year of Capone’s life and his deteriorating mental state, there’s a lot to like about this focus and how a near-mythic figure like this reflects on his existence.
The film opens by making it clear Fonse is losing his grip on reality, following his release from prison. He’s seeing things, whether its flashbacks to his prime gangster days, images of a possible secret son he had outside of his marriage, or Feds secretly hiding in the bushes around his Florida mansion. That last one may actually be real, as the Feds are still watching Capone, hoping to learn of money he may have stashed away or any other illegal activity they can look into.
A major aspect of Capone is a focus on the paranoia and vulnerability the man is going through. Suffering from dementia and syphilis at age 48 in 1946, he’s in a difficult position, while being cared for by his wife Mae (Linda Cardellini), and some of his old mob friends who sympathize. The mental state of Fonse is reportedly what drew writer/director/editor Josh Trank to the man. Having had a rough time (to put it mildly) making 2015’s Fantastic Four after the breakout success of Chronicle, the young filmmaker found himself diving deep into the world of this gangster who suffered in apparently relatable ways.
To build a film around a man in this stage of his life, Trank makes interesting choices to convey both how Fonse sees things and what the atmosphere of this environment should feel like. While set in Florida, where the sun does shine and a pseudo opulence is created through the statues Fonse has positioned in his courtyard, nothing ever feels bright in a positive sense. There’s a dark undercurrent to everything, with danger lurking like the alligators in the waters next to Fonse’s home. The music by El-P (usually associated with Run the Jewels and the alternative hip-hop scene) only helps to further emphasize this.
At the center of this presentation is Hardy, who has also had a desire to portray Capone at some point in his career. The actor is not entirely buried in makeup to make him unrecognizable, but there’s enough of an approximation to see him channeling a very specific performance. Yes, it can be big, as you have a performer who always goes all-in putting everything into a character that is suffering, while constantly chomping on cigars, not to mention bringing in a Chicago accent, that occasionally tosses in some random Italian phrases for good measure. That said, attempting to capture the bigger-than-life persona of the real Capone is balanced with long, quiet moments, following the character as he observes and experiences the hazier, confusing life he now lives.
There are two virtuoso sequences that best emblemize what Fonse is going through as far as letting his past and his reality exist as one. Fonse’s mental state, at one point, has him transported to the past, seemingly during the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, where he goes on a long trip through his own house, which has morphed into a series of locations from years ago. Another wild sequence finds Fonse at his worst, becoming dangerous with power, rage, and paranoia. The combination of Hardy’s performance and the energy Trank and his crew bring to these fever-dream sequences make the whole project worth it.
At the same time, there are other elements to admire. In addition to Cardellini, the supporting cast includes Matt Dillon, Noel Fisher, and Kyle MacLachlan. All of them bring out interesting qualities in the film concerning their relationship to Fonse (his mentor, his son, his doctor). One can also see the tricky balance in tone, which is not too self-serious, despite its deliberate pace, and the kind of person we are watching.
Given the depths of Fonse’s deteriorating mind, one could see this film as a psychological horror film about being trapped to an extent, and yet there’s some dark comedy to find in certain situations presented. Perhaps this comes from some interesting influences that include Trank’s favorite film, Miller’s Crossing, as well as what seems to have been a visual reference point, The Shining. Whatever the case, finding the right notes to hit has paid off.
Made with a modest budget, and the benefit of merely looking at a particular time in Fonse’s life, Capone doesn’t have to worry about not being a fully-rounded story of the famed mobster. Instead, with a simple switch of letters, this is like looking at the late years of a monster who happened to have the support of others who contributed to the evil deeds he controlled, as well as family who legitimately cared for him.
That’s the thing about monsters, there is generally a level of sympathy to find in them. With Capone, you have Fonse, a man no longer at the top of the world. Instead, he’s very close to being fed to the alligators, but still in need of sorting out the final desires he has in a world he fought against and succeeded in various ways until it fought back.
Fortunately, while stretched a little thin at times, Trank has a clear level of compassion for his subject and made an interesting examination of the man. Unsurprisingly, Hardy went for it and delivered the goods. As a result, this public enemy has been given a compelling sign-off.