Other than “Trolls World Tour,” with its somewhat specialized audience, the first high-profile film to be released digitally since movie theatres closed is the grand and strange historical drama “Capone,” arriving on Tuesday (reviews were embargoed until Monday). Starring Tom Hardy as the gangland kingpin in his final decline, it’s written and directed by Josh Trank. This is his third feature; his first, “Chronicle,” from 2012, was a gleefully inventive fusion of science fiction and teen drama that, in its vision of obnoxiously overweening adolescent energy, made a virtue of its own hectic callowness. His second, “Fantastic Four” (2015), was a similarly frenzied tale of overreaching ambition. (After he completed a cut, reshoots and a recut were done without him; I liked the hodgepodge results, but the studio should release the director’s cut.)
“Capone” is very much in the same vein as Trank’s prior work, for better and worse. The conceit itself is enticingly clever: after his supervised release, around 1940, from his prison sentence for tax-evasion charges, Al Capone—who is suffering from advanced syphilis and related dementia—has been living in his lavish Miami Beach compound. The action is set in the last year of his life (he died in 1947), when he’s living there with his nuclear family—his wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini) and his son (Noel Fisher)—as well as other relatives and confidants (including an elusive one, played by Matt Dillon), in a gaudy, gilded passivity of physical and mental torment. He soon becomes incontinent and must wear diapers; he’s increasingly delusional and has terrifying visions, reproducing the horrific violence that he took part in during his decades of crime. Already suspicious and wary, he now becomes paranoid, believing that betrayers live in his household and threatening them chillingly. (There’s also a subplot shoehorned in, involving a son whom he has never met.)
The crux of the drama arises from Capone’s mental decline: before his imprisonment, he tells an associate, he buried a stash of ten million dollars in cash—and now can’t remember where it is. Cut off from his former sources of ill-gotten gains, he’s running out of money with which to maintain his palatial home. (It’s a major deficiency of the movie that the financing of that cushy lifestyle remains unexplained.) With his madness mounting, he wants to get hold of the loot before his Mob frenemies do. Their efforts to grab it while Capone is too debilitated to stop them, yet before he dies and takes the secret with him, gives the story an element of ticking-clock suspense that’s ramped up and comedically tweaked when Capone suffers a stroke and becomes aphasic. Meanwhile, the F.B.I. has agents parked on his grounds, watching Capone’s every move and listening to his phone calls. An agent named Crawford (Jack Lowden), motivated by moral fervor (he likens Capone to Hitler), gets permission to head to Florida and question the befogged mobster about the stash.
The movie’s audaciously loose and chimerical plot is its greatest strength. Trank (who also wrote the script) has made the gangster-movie equivalent of “Something Happened,” Joseph Heller’s greatly underrated novel of extraordinary ordinariness. Though not as completely subjective as that book, “Capone” gets so deep into its protagonist’s hallucinations as to render some key moments dubious and major twists quizzical. The depictions of Capone’s visions render his gory past with authentic detail but in distorted form, and make for a wryly sordid contrast between the once-feared potentate’s heyday and his now stunted powers, medical dependency, and emotional bewilderment. The pathos of his character comes not from pity or even empathy but from the mere fascination at seeing the faint flares of his one-time ruthless calculation.
Though Capone’s mental abilities are reduced to those of a child, his aberrant actions and deranged conversations nonetheless reflect his horrifying yet dramatic sociopathology—his life of violence and his megalomaniacal celebrity. There are some fine moments where Trank catches the warped poignancy of Capone’s situation, as when a bespectacled doctor (Kyle MacLachlan) paying a house call, tests Capone by asking, “Do you know who I am?” and the patient responds, “J. Edgar Hoover?” Later, Capone, alone at home, calls the police in the belief that he has been kidnapped and, when asked his name, says “I don’t know,” and adds, “I live on a farm.” There’s a good use of a Marx Brothers riff as a gangsters’ in-joke, and an even better one of “The Wizard of Oz” when Capone and his family watch it in his home theatre, and a sharp moment of drama when Capone is cruel to Mae and she responds in kind.
Yet it’s here that Trank hits the limits of the artistry that he displayed in his first two films. He cuts quickly away from such telling moments, leaving many of the film’s best scenes hanging as inconsequential anecdotes. Instead of opening up his story beyond its cleverly conceived events, he takes the leap into fantasy, a much more severe test of artistry, and, in doing so, sacrifices the movie’s specificity in favor of spectacle. Both “Chronicle” and “Fantastic Four” also leap into visionary artifice and subjective fury, but with Capone the moral and historical stakes are higher. Capone’s hallucinations are populated by children and decorated with silver balloons, and one precious and elusive golden one; Trank fuses these sentimental visions with monstrous ones, a forced contrast of facile ironies. The trouble isn’t with the reliance on fantasy but with Trank’s narrow conception of it; Capone’s tangled and twisted reminiscences merge all too conveniently, and literally, with the events unfolding in his tropical palace. The images convey less a mind falling apart than a screenplay coming together.
The casting of Hardy as Capone—or, rather, the direction of Hardy in the role—is unfortunately consistent with this overdetermined approach. Hardy frequently acts all too mad, a tendency that the thrashing and writhing and torturous events of Capone’s imaginings renders all too automatic. In depicting an overweening usurper whose mind is going, Trank yields to the theatrical temptation of an overheated performance, whereas Hardy’s great moments here convey a chill, presenting Capone’s mind as a gong that sounds cracked, as a light that flickers and dims and luridly flares. The ghastly contrasts are built into the well-conceived story, but Trank neither trusts it nor rises to the demands of his phantasmagorical ambitions. The showiness of much of Hardy’s performance—which matches all too closely the film’s psychological pomp—completes “Capone” ’s shift away from its sharp perceptions and toward a garish carnival that mostly replicates the stereotypes of movie gangsters rather than surpassing them.