Josh Trank’s Capone Is a Portrait of a Director in Meltdown

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There are two performances of note in Capone, director Josh Trank’s truly strange, mostly unsuccessful portrait of a syphilitic Al Capone as he suffers a physical and mental breakdown. 

The first is Tom Hardy’s turn as the title character, which sails far past parody and ends up in fascinatingly bizarre cartoon territory. With his facial appliance and bug-eyed looks, his ostentatious pinstripe suits and luxury pajama-sets, Hardy looks more like a Dick Tracy villain than a real historical person. By the end of the film, he’s chomping a carrot instead of a cigar, and blasting away with a solid gold Tommy gun. And he sounds even less human than he looks. 

Hardy has frequently given his characters unusual, difficult-to-understand voices—the raspy croak of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, the lumbering roar of Max Rockatansky in Fury Road—but here he delivers an unsurpassed level of unintelligibility. He chokes and gurgles and hacks out his dialogue; it’s possible there’s more phlegm than clearly decipherable language. Even when you can understand the lines, the particular words become almost meaningless: They are barked and grunted as physical emanations of confusion and rage, not sentences meant to communicate particular information. Every line of dialogue is rendered into a spittle-tinged “Eeeeuuuurgghhuuughrrgh.” Imagine listening to Miss Piggy attempting to shout paranoid nonsense in Italian while being violently choked to death for 100 minutes, and you’ll have some idea what it’s like to listen to Hardy in Capone

I can’t entirely say I enjoyed it, but it’s clear Hardy put a lot of effort into the act. Which brings us to the other performance—director Josh Trank’s. 

The young director broke onto the scene with 2012’s Chronicle, a cleverly constructed, modestly budgeted riff on the superhero origin story. It was a hit. Trank was not yet 30 years old, but he was set to become a major force in Hollywood, signing a deal to make a Star Wars film and landing at the helm of a major superhero production. But his 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four was an unmitigated disaster, plagued by huge conflicts both on and off the set, where Trank reportedly isolated himself from the rest of the cast and crew. Those battles broke into public view when, just days before release, he tweeted, “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this, and it would’ve recieved [sic] great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”

It’s never a great sign when a director publicly condemns his own film. Somehow, Fantastic Four managed to be even worse than almost anyone expected, earning a well-deserved reputation as one of the worst studio blockbusters in recent history. Trank’s Star Wars deal fell apart, and he was branded as difficult to work with. Once a hot Hollywood property, Trank was on the outs.

Capone, then, represents a comeback of sort, or at least an attempt at one. As with Hardy’s bizarrely over-the-top portrayal, Trank, who wrote, directed, and edited the film, has clearly put in some effort. There’s a dour mood to the production, a looming sense of the ominous. At times it becomes almost dreamlike, especially when Twin Peaks‘ Kyle MacLachlan appears as Capone’s doctor. Trank’s camera seems to haunt Capone’s gaudy South Florida estate, and he occasionally cuts away from the action to languorous shots of the swamp and sky. He stages elaborate hallucinatory sequences, a mixture of grandiose memory and paranoid confusion, as if to take viewers inside Capone’s head.

Trank, who spent much of the last five years in director jail, clearly sees a bit of his own story in the aging, post-prison gangster. Capone, whose rise to power peaked in his late twenties and early thirties, may have been a bad man, but he was a somebody, a boss who ran things and made an impact—all while he was very young. And at what should have been the peak of his life, he was put in jail. He came out the other side distraught, confused, paranoid and bitter, sometimes hurting the people he loved the most. Who couldn’t relate to that?

Trank seems to sees this as a story that people will connect with, but despite his technical flourishes, it’s told in such a halting, discursive manner, with so little driving conflict that it’s likely to leave most viewers cold. The movie reveals almost nothing about Capone or his motivations, nothing about the particulars of his criminal enterprises or the Prohibition era that enabled his brand of violent terror. It probably tells us more about Trank himself, and the perils of rapid Hollywood success, than it does about the storied gangster it’s putatively about. It’s a portrait of a director in meltdown. 

That Capone is garnering much attention at all is probably due, at least in part, to the fact that coronavirus lockdowns have wiped Hollywood’s release schedule clean. Normally this would be the start of the summer movie season, but the lack of major releases means that more attention is paid to oddities like this or last week’s Arkansas, another interesting, modestly budgeted failure. I didn’t care for either, yet I’m glad to have both available to watch at home: Weird, unsuccessful, self-indulgent movies are far better than no movies at all.

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