Crime films often unpack the shocking lives of mobsters and murderers. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma and Michael Mann have made their careers depicting these gruesome stories. For decades, films like The Godfather (1972), Scarface (1983), Goodfellas (1990) and Heat (1995) have become favourites, making audiences cry, wince, laugh and shout. It goes without saying that this genre has been influential to the history of cinema. Some films even classify as ‘true crime’, which places them in the equally important ‘biopic’ category. There’s been a recent downturn in the genre’s quality, but crime biopics are still met with interest from film goers. Given the stature of those earlier classics, filmmakers often feel immense pressure when delivering new entries. Director Josh Trank’s Capone (2020) might be feeling more pressure than any crime film in recent memory.
The infamous Italian-American crime lord, Alphonse Capone (Tom Hardy), was famously caught for tax evasion in 1931. Following an 11 year sentence, he was released from prison and various institutions, only to spend his final days in isolation. As a teenager, he had unknowingly contracted neurosyphilis which started to manifest while still in prison. This story depicts the final year of Capone’s life, at which point the disease has caused him to completely lose his mind and alienate those around him, including his tortured wife Mae Coughlin (Linda Cardellini). He’s seemingly no longer a threat to anyone, yet the FBI is still secretly surveilling him, hoping to find out useful information. Meanwhile, we get an inside look into the broken mind of Capone, who is apparently haunted by his violent past.
Only the most battle-hardened directors dare tackle such a complex figure like Capone. Hearing that Josh Trank would give it a go was met with equal measures of excitement and concern. On the one hand, Trank impressed viewers with his debut feature Chronicle (2012), but on the other hand he was caught up in the disastrous Fantastic Four (2015). Despite not being entirely at fault for the latter film’s failure, Hollywood has been reluctant to give the filmmaker another shot at the big league. When in this uncomfortable position, delivering a brave, brazen and unpredictable feature is usually the ticket back. For this task, any other filmmaker would’ve chosen a less daunting project, but Trank isn’t the average filmmaker and shows off the full extent of his courage. He is credited as director, writer and editor, so there’s absolutely no mistaking that the best and worst qualities of this film sprang from his mind.
Right off the bat, audiences shouldn’t expect gangster film clichés. Instead of the usual collection of shootouts, robberies and beatings, we are given a surreal, depressing and nightmarish character study. Trank doesn’t waste any time explaining Al Capone’s backstory, instead expecting the viewer to know the history. References to bootlegging, Prohibition and the St Valentines Day Massacre are sprinkled throughout, but it’s all incredibly subtle. In theory this is the correct approach, as it prevents the narrative from feeling like a clip-show. It may be disappointing for those expecting an analysis of Capone’s most infamous moments, but it’s perfectly possible to create a satisfying biopic by picking a specific moment in time, as proven with films like Lincoln (2012). While Trank has the right idea, historical explanation could’ve given the film’s events some context.
Instead of enriching the world and characters with detail, Trank uses Capone as mood piece, crafting a tone similar to a slow paced horror film. With that in mind, the narrative is at its strongest when it leans into the horror. For long stretches of time, we see the world from the perspective of Capone’s fractured mind. These nightmarish sequences unfold like a violent stream of consciousness. Trank’s bleak aesthetic is perfect for these moments, blending surreal terror with psychological character introspection. Sadly, the lead-up to these sequences doesn’t reach the same level of engagement. It’s clear the first half is meant to gradually build the foundations of Capone’s madness, but it doesn’t entirely work due to a lack structure or storytelling rules.
Despite having a focused premised and all the correct story pieces, the plot doesn’t form a fully functioning narrative. There are many characters and motivations to keep track of, yet the scene by scene construction doesn’t allow the complexity to develop. Plenty of time is dedicated to showing Capone’s mental and psychical deterioration, but it doesn’t arrive at a strong point. This issue becomes more apparent in the third act once Agent Crawford (Jack Lowden) enters the story. If the events were from Crawford’s perspective instead of Capone’s, the story could’ve had meaning and could’ve been more compelling than just watching a man go insane. Sure, making Crawford the lead and Capone the support might have made the story functional, but Trank didn’t want to make a crime-drama: he wanted to make a crime-horror. These choices were made long before pen hit paper.
Trank’s choice places the mentally compromised Al Capone at the centre of the story, meaning that an actor of incredible range and talent was needed to carry the film. With a resume which includes Bronson (2008), Inception (2010), Warrior (2011), Locke (2013), The Drop (2014), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), The Revenant (2015) and Dunkirk (2017), Tom Hardy is unquestionably one of the most compelling actors working today. If anyone has the ability and screen presence to embody the most infamous crime lord of all time, it’s Tom Hardy. It’s a challenging role and Hardy swings for the fences, playing into Capone’s violent insanity with complete conviction. That being said, the performance direction is so over-the-top and bizarre that audiences may be laughing whenever they should be scared. Hardy’s work is the highlight of the film, but it will make or break it depending on your artistic sensibilities.
Filmmaking is about collaboration, even when an auteur is at the helm. The director may have a vision, but there are many factors and many people who contribute to a film’s successes and failures. Comparatively, Capone might be the most singularly controlled film in recent memory. Unlike Chronicle and Fantastic Four, Josh Trank has complete ownership over every aspect. This is unmistakably the film he set out to make and wanted us to see. Capone is deeply flawed, but Trank still deserves respect for being a committed to his vision.
Best way to watch it: It’s about an Italian, so is it too obvious to suggest a watch on pizza night?