Martin Scorsese isn’t the only director who recently explored themes of regret at the end of a life of crime, but the elegant restraint of Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is nowhere to be found in Josh Trank’s “Capone.” Instead, the director has rebounded from a career low point (2015’s “Fantastic Four”) by whipping up a bloody and loopy re-creation of Al Capone’s final year, featuring another performance in which Tom Hardy laughs in the face of conventional notions of good v. bad acting.
“Knives Out” director Rian Johnson called “Capone” “bats— bonkers (in the best possible way)” on Twitter last month, and he’s certainly right about the first part of that phrase. Whether you buy “in the best possible way” will depend on your appetite for this particular kind of blood-soaked nuttiness.
You could think of “Capone” as “The Irishman” as reimagined by David Lynch, or as “Scarface” as tackled by the Stanley Kubrick of “The Shining” — but those descriptions don’t capture the singular cocktail of contemplation and lunacy that Trank makes of this long-in-the-works enterprise.
The director was a hot property after his indie sci-fi hit “Chronicle” in 2012, but his career took a nosedive after “Fantastic Four” flopped and his subsequent spat with 20th Century Fox as well as his removal from the standalone “Star Wars” movie he was slated to direct. Trank has said he found a personal connection to the final year in the life of Al Capone, the notorious gangster who spent his last days wracked with neurosyphilis-caused dementia on his Florida estate.
Hardy’s Alphonse Capone is called “Fonse” by everybody, which led to the film’s original title, “Fonzo.” He looks like hell and sounds worse, croaking his way through stories that may or may not have any connection to reality. After about half an hour in his company — which is enough time to see him vomit in a trash can and lose control of both his bladder and his bowels at separate times — one hopes for Trank’s sake that the director doesn’t feel too close a connection with the gangster.
The film, which premieres on VOD on Tuesday, is set in 1946 and ’47, when Capone was a mental and physical wreck after decades of living with syphilis. The one-time ganglord, freed after seven years at Alcatraz because of his failing health, is sequestered at his Palm Island estate with his wife and son, along with an array of aides who take care of him under the watchful eye of the feds. He can remember that he hid $10 million somewhere, but he can’t remember where.
All of this bears some connection to the real events of Capone’s life, but historical fidelity is the least of anybody’s concerns here. The camera glides through stately rooms as Puccini, Vivaldi and Pachelbel play, with the classical music a brazen counterpoint to the messiness of what’s happening in front of us.
“Capone” is most interesting when it’s at its most extreme. The first big WTF moment might come when he watches “The Wizard of Oz” in his private screening room, and eagerly jumps in front of the screen to join in with the Cowardly Lion on “If I Were King of the Forest” in his diseased croak. (There’s a reason that “Oz,” a film that is explained as a dream, is a touchstone here.)
Hardy’s performance flirts with unintelligibility at every turn, but that’s nothing new for the actor. Buried under layers of prosthetics, he’s a crazy old man hallucinating his way down dark and haunted hallways; his body might be in a comfortable mansion, but his brain lives in a dreamscape littered with his victims and his foes.
Back in the “real” world, Capone’s most steadfast companion is his wife, Mae, played by Linda Cardellini in a way that reminds us that the actress still knows her way around the role of the long-suffering, patient wife of a goombah. (Capone definitely makes being supportive harder than Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Lip did in “Green Book.”)
For a while, the film seems to traffic in elegant creepiness and little character moments, but soon enough all hell breaks loose, bodily fluids start dripping and viewers have to make up their minds: Are you going to run from this whacked-out twilight of the gods, or give in to it?
It’s nuts, it’s a mess and it’s pretty damn entertaining if you don’t mind characters pooping the bed and getting stabbed in the neck. (Not at the same time, FYI, and not the same character.) At times, it’s also downright cartoonish — and cartoonish is exactly the right word when, after Capone suffers a stroke, a doctor played by Kyle MacLachlan lays down the law: No more cigars, ever. “I suggest you give him one of these,” he says, pulling a carrot out of his bag.
“What is he, f—ing Bugs Bunny?” one of Capone’s aides snaps.
Yeah, for the rest of the movie there is something a little Bugsy about the guy. But hey, you haven’t seen Al Capone until you’ve seen him chomping on a carrot and wielding a machine gun while wearing a droopy diaper.
And of course, Josh Trank takes you there.