“You know, this is what happens when people spend too much time in Florida.”
I can’t lie. Half of my interest in CAPONE was a curiosity about the legend of its writer/director/editor Josh Trank. If you know who that is, you probly know him for a meteoric rise and fall. The success of one found footage movie (CHRONICLE) led to coveted studio gigs – a giant super hero movie and a Star Wars spin-off. But FANTASTIC FOUR was drastically changed from his cut, he quit the Boba Fett movie before they could fire him, there was a weird story in the Hollywood Reporter about his dogs wrecking a house he rented, and he made the career-sabotaging faux pas of disavowing FANTASTIC FOUR on Twitter just before it was released to terrible reviews and box office.
Seemed like a cautionary tale, and I can’t deny a morbid fascination with it. I didn’t love CHRONICLE, save for its cleverness about fitting good camera moves into found footage, so I wondered how these powerful Hollywood people got, and then lost, so much faith in the guy. But when I saw FANTASTIC FOUR I actually found alot to like about it, especially in the discovering-their-powers scenes that I described at the time as “more inspired by THE FLY than SPIDER-MAN.” And I realized that he hadn’t come completely out of nowhere – he edited and co-produced BIG FAN, a dark comedy/drama I liked.
Five years after his fall into the Great Pit of Carkoon, Trank has resurfaced with a self-generated, independent project, not inspired by “geek properties,” but by one of those historical deep cut kind of stories some people get hooked on. CAPONE is about Al Capone not in his gang years, but the last year of his life, released from prison to live in a mansion in Florida as his mental and physical capacity deteriorate from syphilis and strokes.
And it’s another thing I like: the Tom Hardy acting showcase. I saw him transform into BRONSON. I saw him put a spin on Bane that no other human would have thought of. I saw him do a whole movie driving a car and talking on speaker phone. I want to see his entire Rolodex of accents and voices, so I had to see this.
I’m happy to report that CAPONE delivers mightily on both promises: yes, it turns out Trank is a filmatist with vision, and yes, this is a hell of a good time at the VOD for those of us who enjoy seeing Tom Hardy bite into a role and chew its face off. He gets to transform himself. He gets to do a voice – almost a Popeye voice that his friend compares to “a dyin’ horse.” You know how much I like Hardy’s use of grunts in FURY ROAD, and man does he grunt here. This is a symphony of grunts.
We meet Capone not as a monster, but an old man. Well, he’s only 48, but he’s grey and hunched and can get confused. He plays around with kids and surrounded by family including his wife Mae (Linda Cardellini, GOOD BURGER), son Junior (Noel Fisher, Michelangelo in the Bay-produced NINJA TURTLES movies) and brother Ralphie (Al Sapienza, LATE PHASES).
Cardellini now has two movies where she’s the supportive wife to a mobster played by a showy chameleon type actor. (And also to Hawkeye!) Though it’s hard to be noticed next to Hardy, it’s a more central role than in GREEN BOOK, a complex character who stands up to receive the shit sandwiches life served her for having loved this guy. Mae acts as both caretaker and long-suffering wife, trying to separate her husband from his horrible past and enjoy some peaceful times before it’s too late. She gets his old gang friends out of the house, despite the extra work it will mean for her. But with his dementia comes confusion about the violent events that show up in his dreams and hallucinations. I sense a bit of A Christmas Carol in the way his past haunts him, but he doesn’t have the ability to process what he’s remembering.
He’s very paranoid, yelling at people (usually imaginary) and alligators (sometimes real). But we know some of this is justified: FBI agents are watching him, bugging him, even conspiring with his doctor (Kyle MacLachlan, THE FLINTSTONES), trying to learn the location of a money stash he doesn’t remember.
As his mind goes, so do the walls between present and past, legend and reality. He hears his name on a radio play about the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and grunts, “Hm?” You’re not sure how much he’s able to process this sensationalized version of his actual experiences.
There’s also some dark humor. He sneaks off to fish with a friend (Matt Dillon, WILD THINGS) and rages at an alligator that steals a fish off his hook. “YOU FUCKIN’ BUM!” he yells at it. I would like to frame this scene and hang it up on a wall next to the one from BAD LIEUTENANT where Harvey Keitel calls a vision of Jesus “you rat fuck!”
His finances start to dwindle, and he has to sell off some of his fancy statues. But he has a home theater and a print of THE WIZARD OF OZ. When he stands up and walks at the screen it seems like he’s gonna do something crazy, but he just sings along with “If I Were King of the Forest.” He loves it. Ralphie is mystified why it moves his brother so much. I’m not sure how much I needed Capone to be humanized, but a really effective way to do it was to show him annoyed by literal-minded nitpicking of a movie that moves him.
I’m not saying CAPONE is this generation’s THE WIZARD OF OZ, but it did move me. To my mind there are three main levels it works on:
I suspect Trank sees the subtext as autobiography, relating to the character as a man trying to escape his past. But I think Capone can also represent all the flagrantly corrupt people who bully and victimize everybody in their path and get away with it. When the law finally came for him he did time for lesser crimes and was still able to enjoy an extravagant Florida retirement funded by his blood money. In 2020 you can’t turn on the news without seeing a bunch of Capones (usually not from his poor background) avoiding accountability. This story offers a fantasy that those monsters will at least face the nightmares of conscience and bodily degradation karma has coming for them.
(It’s hard to imagine the president ever feeling guilt, but he definitely could shit himself.)
2. Deconstructing the glorification of gangsters
Trank’s preferred title for the movie was FONZO, a good choice because family and friends only call him “Fonze” or “Fonzo” as part of Mae’s wishes to separate him from the old days. The distributor asked Trank to change the title to CAPONE, for obvious commercial reasons, but in a way its normalness makes it kind of cooler. To get somebody to watch it thinking “Oh man, CAPONE, this is gonna be a movie about Al Capone” and then it’s more about a helpless old man shitting himself than about a gang boss… that bait-and-switch is one of the movie’s purposes right there.
There’s no point in CAPONE when we get to see the title character being glamorous. We see him puking, choking, pissing, shitting, snoring, crying, sweating and drooling. How can you be macho when you wake up with your wife screaming because you literally shit the bed, and you have to ask “What happened?” Early in the movie he still remembers some of the mannerisms and sayings of a tough guy, but he can’t always string them together well enough to make sense. And before long they fade away entirely.
There aren’t even flashbacks to the glory days, only regretful memories that plague him. He gets lost in them, confused about where he is in time. Most of the movie isn’t even violent, until one horrifically gory memory that he must’ve stood by and approved of at the time, but in his present state he looks on in horror.
There’s a harrowing scene where (HARROWING SCENE SPOILER) he wanders off and nobody can find him until the groundskeeper Rodrigo (Edgar Arreola, WALKING TALL: LONE JUSTICE, SICARIO) finds him getting into his old things, including a gold tommygun. Next thing you know he’s waddling around the grounds shooting workers, friends and family. You’re not sure at first if he has any idea what’s going on, and he’s firing up at the windows where his family are, standing there with his gun, wearing a bathrobe, pajama top and diaper, standing next to a fountain. The fountain made me see it as a response to the climactic massacre in DePalma’s SCARFACE, a movie I love, that’s based on a movie based on a book based on Al Capone, and has been received by many as the ultimate glorification of a gang boss.
I would argue that DePalma’s ending is a downfall, a cautionary tale, but many see it as going out with a bang, because it’s so thrilling. Trank makes his gut wrenching – a slow motion disaster unfolding. Like a toddler picked up a power tool. They’re hiding in the bushes, trying to talk to him, hoping to god they don’t have to put him down. There’s your legendary Al Capone.
3. A human story of dealing with terminal illness
I don’t usually cry at gangster movies, but this one got me. As I’ve written before, I lost both parents to diseases that gradually took away their brain functions until they were no longer themselves. CAPONE authentically captures some of that experience, so obviously it hit me more than it will the next guy.
Part of that is anger. Being reminded of what my parents went through, but they never hurt anybody in their lives, and didn’t get to die in a mansion in Florida. I don’t think either of them ever went to Florida.
But it also made me sympathize with him. Thinking how scary it would be to be that confused, and worrying that I will be some day. Imagining how horrible it must feel to lose control of bodily functions. Seeing that look on his face of pretending it’s not happening. I’ve seen that face.
I recognized much of what his wife and son go through as they start to realize how much of this person they love they’re never going to see again, and as they exhaust themselves trying to take care of him and hold up a facade that everything is fine. I didn’t have anything so dramatic as a secret half brother accidentally revealed in a crayon drawing, but I know how Junior feels, talking to his dad like he’s a kid, trying to decode what he’s talking about, trying not to be hurt that his own father doesn’t remember who he is. And Capone’s hallucinations, suddenly screaming about things, people trying to tell him there’s nothing there – I had more of those with my mom than I can count.
After Capone has a stroke, the doctor says he can’t have any more cigars. Most of his life he’s been chewing on a short little cigar, it’s his thing, his trademark. You draw an old timey gangster in a cartoon, he’s got a cigar in the side of his mouth. Al “Scarface” Capone without a cigar in his mouth is like Popeye without a pipe. So the doctor suggests they give him a carrot.
To Ralphie and Junior this is outrageous. Emasculating their loved one, their hero. “He ain’t gonna fall for that shit!”
Cut to Fonzo with a piece of carrot in his mouth, a string of saliva rappelling from the end, not noticing the difference. And then he almost swallows the carrot and they have to struggle to get it out before he chokes, like when your dog gets into something he shouldn’t.
No one is indestructible. Everybody falls apart, one way or another, whether they deserve it or not.
CAPONE is really good. I’m in the Trank Tank now.
(released on VOD May 12)
P.S. The score is by El-P! It’s mostly subdued, but you can hear some of his style on the end credits.
The post-disaster artist
Really good Trank profile by Matt Patches at Polygon
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.