When I first heard that Josh Trank was making another movie, I got excited!
I knew I was in for something utterly fascinating and likely horrifying. I had little hopes that the film would be any sort of classic or even particularly good, but coming from the infamous director of “Fan4stic” I knew I had to see what was likely to be regarded as 2020’s most bizarre and outlandish film.
What I didn’t expect was that the movie was going to be one of the most grotesque, genuinely terrible and oddly fascinating films to come out of 2020.
I didn’t know I was setting myself up for 2020’s “Cats.”
“Capone” is objectively an awful movie. It is a plotless, disgusting and formless beast of a biopic that likely does not have much to say on the objective history of Al Capone’s final year on Earth. It is not the first film to address his wild and tumultuous life, but it is easily one of the worst to tackle the subject.
Despite the novel approach of highlighting a part of Capone’s life that is rarely discussed, the movie doesn’t find much to say about Capone that we do not already know. While it’s true that he degenerated and died from the side effects of untreated syphilis, these events feel melodramatic and stitched together from mostly fictional events and meetings.
Most of the film’s energy comes from above-average performances from its excellent cast (seriously, Tom Hardy, Kyle MacLachlan and Matt Dillion are an all-star dream cast for a mobster film). Compare it to Hollywood’s last great Al Capone film, Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables,” and a lackadaisical approach to storytelling becomes obvious.
“Capone” offers a limp-wristed and formless story that exists to stitch together a few scenes of Hardy’s wild ride of a performance.
I will give Trank the benefit of the doubt, though. The movie is expressing a bizarre and depressing idea at its core that elevates it from the miasma of poop jokes and hallucinations that make up the film’s runtime. It’s the antithesis to the traditional outlaw/mob epics that dominate American cinema.
Unlike “Goodfellas,” “Scarface,” “Miller’s Crossing” or “The Untouchables,” it’s not approaching its material with romanticism and grandeur. This isn’t a movie about the glory days of the mob or the appeal of crime. Just the opposite:
“Capone” is a movie about the horror of degeneration.
Hardy and Trank put the majority of the focus into exploring Al Capone’s physical and psychological destruction. You see it in the way Hardy approaches the performance. He has created a strange combination of the legendary image of Al Capone that we all know and a shriveled-up goblin that happens to exist in the same person.
The film creates a dichotomy between the Al Capone we see on screen and the man we know from legend. We have seen Capone in movies and documentaries as a great American outlaw and the king of Chicago. The effect of such a performance really makes his current state of mind more distinctive. The result is a film that surprisingly captures the horror of mental deterioration in an honest way.
I speak on this issue from experience as someone who has had to watch family members die from similar mental ailments. While Alzheimer’s isn’t the same thing as syphilis, I can affirm that Hardy is approaching his performance with an understanding of this kind of mental deterioration in mind.
Alzheimer’s isn’t merely a disease that causes memory loss. It’s a disease that totally breaks down the identity and functionality of a person until they’re a shallow husk of their former selves. Having watched my own late grandmother slowly fade from Alzheimer’s over the past decade until her death last November, I recognize so much of what I saw in real life in Hardy’s performance.
The worst part of diseases like dementia is that the person who is suffering from them doesn’t realize what’s happening. They don’t know they’re a burden. They don’t know what elements of social etiquette they’re forgetting. When they forget how to eat, they don’t know why the people around them are prodding them with spoons and forks.
The whole time, they’re embarrassed by their lack of agency. They feel undignified when other people have to change their clothes and wipe their bottoms. They feel cripplingly alone from not recognizing their friends and family around them. They become trapped in a cycle of dependency with their loved ones, who they burden further and further while they themselves dissociate with the world around them.
The full horror of mental deterioration is that it breaks down the soul and leaves the body intact. I watched a loving person with a passion for reading, puzzles and playing the piano slowly lose the patience and ability to engage in any activity she loved.
The person dies long before the body.
There are still so many myths that surround dementia, including this one. We need all our #DementiaFriends help to dispel them. Let’s spread the word. Dementia is NOT a natural part of ageing. It is caused by diseases of the brain. pic.twitter.com/yrmNhSEC6Y
— Dementia Friends (@DementiaFriends) June 12, 2020
As bad as “Capone” is, I recognize the choices underlying all of Hardy’s scenes. I see the man who remembers he was a great criminal mastermind but can’t remember where he is or why he’s important. I see the man who is embarrassed by his lack of agency and self-respect.
By the end of the film, Capone’s body is an empty husk. He moves like Capone, talks like Capone and shoots guns like Capone, but he does not understand who he is firing his Tommy gun at or why. He has just devolved into an empty machine that used to be Al Capone but can’t stop moving yet.
That “Capone” as a film is plotless and inconsequential is the point. As we see in the story, all the characters around him are sensible, responsible adults who love him and want the best for him. The authorities spying on him are rightly concerned he’s going to attempt to rebuild his empire without taking into consideration that he’s incapable of doing so.
Capone himself bumbles between carrying an understanding of his ego and identity as Al Capone and a complete inability to recognize himself, his surroundings and his goals.
Look, maybe I’m reading too much into “Capone” because I haven’t seen a new movie since early March. Maybe It just hits close to home because I understand what it feels like to live with someone like this. As much as the movie is dramatizing the idea and consequences of dementia, I’m not actually sure what the film is trying to say about dementia beyond putting its effects under an extreme microscope.
That said, it did hit closer to home than I think a film this bad should. Demented individuals like Capone need people around them that loved them and had the patience for them to the bitter end. Maybe there’s something gratifying in the way it quietly portrays those people in his life as patient and understanding.
This isn’t a movie about the people around Capone abandoning him. It’s a movie about the tragedy of one man’s mental faculties being lost.
(This post was originally published on Rebeller Media on May 21, 2020 and is being re-posted with permission of the writer and editor. Additional essays may be found at TheEDBlog.com.)
Tyler Hummel is a freelance film writer whose work has appeared at Geeks Under Grace, The Ed Blog and The Daily Wire.