⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
Stars: Tom Hardy, Linda Cardellini, Matt Dillon, Kyle MacLachlan
Writer/Director: Josh Trank
Streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and other video-on-demand platforms
One thing’s for sure with this grumbly, sweat-soaked account of mob boss Al Capone’s last days: Nobody is slumming it.
In the title role, Tom Hardy (Dunkirk) plunges headfirst into the crumbling mind and body of a one-time tough guy, now riddled by syphilis-steeped dementia. Writer/Director Josh Trank (Chronicle, The Fantastic Four) breaks all the rules of gangster filmmaking, trading lethal swagger and explosive shoot-outs for spiraling decrepitude and fever-induced hallucination. And cinematographer Peter Deming, a longtime David Lynch collaborator, leads the viewer into a dark, disorienting half-real, half-illusionary house of mirrors. Even hip-hop legend El-P’s musical score, a barely-there tone poem of jarring dissonance, provides layers of troubling sonic atmosphere.
But despite all these artists clicking on all cylinders — or maybe, in a perverse way, because of that — Capone never really engages its audience, keeping us at arm’s length even as it probes the most private recesses of a character’s psyche.
We meet Al “Scarface” Capone — or Fonse, as he prefers to be called these days — on Thanksgiving, 1945, six years after he was released from federal prison and sent home to die of the venereal disease that was eating his brain. History tells us Capone was among the first people in the country to receive penicillin treatment for syphilis, in 1942, but it was too late to save his ravaged body and mind. (At a loss for anything to help his doomed patient, Fonse’s doctor, played with upbeat enthusiasm by Kyle MacLachlan, prescribes raw carrots to replace Capone’s ever-present cigars.)
Capone traces the year between the last two Thanksgivings of Capone’s life. Stooped and at times barely coherent, his trademark facial scars drooping like a falling curtain, Capone shuffles around the Miami mansion he bought with his kingpin fortune. He barks demands for food, drinks, and cigars from his long-suffering yet somehow loyal wife — played with tough tenderness by an under-used Linda Cardellini (Mad Men) — and listens in childlike awe to radio dramas re-creating the most sordid chapters of his life, like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
As Capone’s mind disintegrates, he finds solace in the company of ex-gang members, who may or may not be real, but who satisfy his yearning to still be the Boss. His memories also haunt him as he re-lives tortured scenes from his past, including the frenzied, fuzzy recollection of having fathered a son by a woman who died in a mob shootout.
For Fonse, grim reality and fever dream fantasy interweave like the lines of a somber jazz piece echoing in a seedy Chicago speakeasy. Suffering perpetual sweats, debilitating coughing fits and persistent (not to mention distressingly graphic) incontinence, Fonse becomes progressively agitated to the point where he pulls out an old gold-plated Tommy gun and starts spraying bullets all over the place.
Or does he? Indeed, Capone plays the is-it-real-or-is-it-memory card so often the film threatens, by the end, to become an impenetrable slog. There’s no denying the movie’s cerebral ambitions — but its heart lies somewhere at the bottom of Lake Michigan, wearing a pair of cement shoes.
Featured image: Tom Hardy as Al Capone in Capone (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now