Capone: The alligator loses his teeth in a fragmented, awkward gangster drama

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Courtesy of rogerebert.com

Will Clark, Scarlet Staff

A solid-gold tommy gun, a scar-faced, pinstriped tough, and some snapping, yellow-eyed gators lurching around a swamp all blast their way across my living room screen yesterday afternoon. With this description, you could be forgiven for thinking that the movie I was watching was traditional Goodfellas fare, a rush of gun barrels and blood lurking beneath friendship and family bonds. Capone, though, for better or worse, is more interested in the ghoulish phantoms they leave in the titular gangster’s eyes as he sweats, shivers, and emphatically poops himself through the last year of his life (to the disgust of the FBI interviewers sent to spy on him in retirement).

Josh Trank’s (Chronicle (2012), Fantastic Four (2015)) latest outing is a well-acted but awkwardly paced depiction of the famous Chicago bootlegger’s final years. Having ended his reign of terror in Chicago with a conviction for tax evasion, Capone was released from prison ten years later and retired to his opulent home in Florida, where his mental and physical rapidly began to fail from an untreated case of syphilis. The film opens four years later, in 1945, where Capone, played by veteran British actor Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Venom (2018)), is struggling to hold on to his dignity as the disease destroys his mind. He must contend with both physical decay—Hardy spends most of the movie shambling around in a bathrobe, grunting incoherently—and the breakdown of his powerful kingpin existence. While FBI agents prowl around his house and tap his phone calls, he and his wife Mae (Linda Cardellini) are forced to sell their furniture and beloved art collection. As he descends into paranoia, accusing the garden staff of pilfering his art, Capone hallucinates the ghosts, massacres, and horrific deeds he caused during his time in the Mob.

Despite its literal and figurative viscerality, however, Capone’s attempt to capture the fall of a powerful man into decrepitude are thrown off by significant issues with the pacing, scripting, and casting, which rob the film of direction and dull the force of its star’s skillful acting. Though Hardy’s Capone is brilliantly eccentric, a force of nature still capable (at first) of lashing out with a cigar-crushing snarl, the supporting cast lacks verve. Though Cardellini nails the “beleaguered and tired” surface of her character, she doesn’t delve any deeper, and Mae comes across as flat, as do Capone’s chief enforcer (Gino Cafarelli), his neurotic doctor (Kyle MacLachlan) and various FBI agents sent to spy on the gangster. The film’s pacing and scene structure is a little odd, cutting off some scenes abruptly—the introductions of Capone’s gangster buddy, Johnny, and of Capone’s illegitimate son Tony particularly suffer—and leaning heavily on symbolic hallucinations which teeter precariously on the edge of beating the audience over the head. Do we really need to see a nearly 10-minute sequence of a bloodied child leading Capone through a ballroom filled with Tommy-gunned corpses? The heavy-handed symbolic visions weigh the movie down, and it comes as a perverse relief to see some real honest-to-goodness violence in the movie’s climax, when—no spoilers, they put it in the trailers!—Capone briefly hauls out his gold-plated tommy gun for a spin.

The fact that Hardy’s distinctive Capone is not only retired but immobile and speechless for most of the movie means that the flat supporting cast and top-heavy visions are the only way to get at the roil of guilt and anger behind his smoldering cigar. This awkward writing hinders Hardy’s command of the character and makes it difficult for Capone’s own voice to color the banality of aging. He’s a talented actor, but not quite talented enough to engrave the complexity of Capone’s thoughts with his face alone. One leaves the film wishing Capone had had just a little more dialogue so Hardy could heat the stew of the gangster’s frustration to a rolling boil.

Capone, then, is in essence similar to the humbled mafioso himself: forcefully charismatic, with Hardy’s acting giving some scenes a pointed energy, but also hobbled and aimless, weighed down by a script and supporting cast that eat away at its strength, like the predatory disease that gnaws at Capone’s sanity. The film is riddled with flaws, but it can’t quite twist itself into the magnetic parody of celebrity the real “Scarface” Capone used to claw his way into the American popular memory.