What the hell kind of voice is Tom Hardy doing in Capone?
That shouldn’t be your primary concern while watching a movie about the sad final year of the notorious gangster’s life — a period where dementia and syphilis robbed him of his mental faculties and his continence — but the actor’s commitment to his goofy, feverish performance is hard to ignore. In fact, even other characters in the movie talk about that voice. “You sound like a dying horse,” his pal Johnny (Matt Dillon) informs him as they relax at Capone’s palatial Florida estate. After about an hour, I finally landed on what Hardy most resembled. Best I can figure, he’s doing a bullfrog trying to imitate Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade/“French fried potatoers” accent.
That deeply affected voice is so silly — so pretentiously “actorly” — that it’s a perfect metaphor for this debacle of a movie. Everyone involved with Capone seems to think it’s a dark, go-for-broke meditation on a towering man’s precipitous fall. No one realizes how unintentionally hilarious the whole thing is. Some movies are incompetently made but quickly forgotten, so give Capone this, and I mean it sincerely: This is a fascinatingly bad film that’s been constructed with care, guts and skill. Its consistent failure is all the more riveting as a result. Knives Out filmmaker Rian Johnson has declared Capone “batshit bonkers (in the best possible way).” He’s only half-right.
We’re in Miami, circa 1946, as Al Capone (Hardy) and his adoring wife Mae (Linda Cardellini) try to rebuild their lives after he spent a decade in prison for tax evasion. But Capone is no longer the ruthless, virile bootlegger she once knew. Laid low by illness, he wanders around his empty mansion like dejected old Charles Foster Kane at the end of Citizen Kane — except with the added anxiety of constantly seeing things and having disturbing dreams where he’s visited by a boy ominously holding a gold balloon. Also, he’s convinced he hid $10 million — somewhere — before he went to the slammer, but now because of his faulty memory, he has no idea where it is. Paranoid and scared, this mid-40s man will be dead soon, his once mighty empire reduced to ash.
Capone seeks to be a pitiless account of that descent into ruin, never looking away from Capone’s violent delusions and embarrassing bodily functions. (The gangster loses control of his bowels three times in the span of about 100 minutes, although it’s not the only way that this movie seems full of shit.) This year’s Sundance featured several terrific, candid films about dementia — how the condition cruelly strips away the individual’s fundamental essence, leaving him a shell. But Capone’s all-in enthusiasm for memorializing Capone’s frightening final days feels less like a sympathetic, curious investigation than it does a laughable worst-case scenario of Serious Artist self-indulgence. It’s a catastrophe dressed up as a Bold Provocation.
This is the first film from director Josh Trank since his previous catastrophe, the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot. A superhero movie that went off the rails, forcing a series of studio-imposed reshoots that basically sidelined Trank from his own film, Fantastic Four quickly became one of those big, fat targets for ridicule — largely because it seemed to be a case of a promising young director (Trank’s debut, Chronicle, is terrific) getting too full of himself and paying the price for his hubris.
Trank’s arrogance and meltdown are all vividly recounted in an excellent new Polygon profile in which the filmmaker talks candidly about that time and how Capone, which he also wrote, was his way of exorcising those demons. This part of the article is especially telling: “[The film is] intended as a new beginning for the 36-year-old director. Written in the irradiated remains of Trank’s career, the film finds The Revenant star Tom Hardy grunting, hissing and shitting his way through an impressionistic death march. On the page, Capone reads more like Twin Peaks than Scarface. The final cut is, in Trank’s words, such a ‘pure and truthful and shocking’ distillation of his own being that he regards it as his real ‘first movie.’”
We all experience difficult periods of personal strife that we have to fight our way out of, and for artists, it’s natural that they’d want to channel that pain through their art, finding catharsis in the process. Watching Capone with the understanding of Trank’s special connection to the material only makes the whole enterprise more touching and awful.
The Capone we meet has been abandoned — the only people who seem to care about him, outside of Mae, are schemers like his doctor Karlock (Kyle MacLachlan), who just wants to locate that hidden money. Some of Capone’s remaining confidantes, as we’ll learn, are just a figment of his diseased imagination. Occasionally, he stumbles through extended, overheated fever dreams that leave him further disoriented — and even when he isn’t, he’s a pitiful wretch who mumbles and croaks more than actually talks. This Capone would be a tragic figure if Hardy didn’t make him such a caricature of Important Acting.
Hardy is a performer who relishes extremes. Even in a very silly comic-book film like Venom, the Oscar-nominated actor gets a kick out of going full-tilt, diving into weird voices or strange tics. And when he takes on the role of twin-brother crooks or the man considered Britain’s most violent criminal, there’s even more excuse to go big. (In retrospect, it seems perfectly normal that Hardy would choose to play a supervillain in a highly anticipated Batman movie whose every utterance was unintelligible.)
But Capone might be his magnum opus, a wholly uncompromised excursion into goofy affectations, bad makeup and gonzo emoting. Since Capone is often only partly lucid, drifting in and out of reality, Hardy has ample opportunity to just stare off into space menacingly, his bloodshot eyes lolling around, his very being unaware of those around him. It’s a performance of complete self-regard that offers zero insight into Capone or of anyone trapped in a similar mental deterioration — manic “craft” at the service of nothing other than its creator’s amusement.
As slight compensation, Hardy often acts so ridiculously that it’s really funny, although it’s not intended to be. When Capone gets mad that an alligator snags the fish he just caught on his line, the ailing gangster throws a fit, grabs a shotgun and fires away at the reptile. After Capone has the latest in a line of strokes, Karlock orders that he stop smoking his ubiquitous cigars, suggesting instead that he bite down on a carrot to handle the oral fixation. As a result, for a good part of Capone, Hardy walks around like a pale Bugs Bunny, his frozen tough-guy face comically undercut by the sight of a gigantic vegetable wedged between his chompers.
And this is when Hardy isn’t simply freaking out or falling down or soiling himself or making murderous threats. Just the voice alone — which, come to think of it, also sounds a bit like Gollum, a perfect complement to Hardy’s pasty Capone complexion — is a perpetual reminder of how misbegotten this film’s ambitions are.
I suspect that in Capone’s unfiltered portrait of a flawed man meeting his ignoble fate, Trank sees a kind of rebirth, killing off the failures of the past as a way to start over. Perhaps he thinks he’s upending the romantic antihero narrative that’s been attached to Capone thanks to captivating crime thrillers like Scarface. Maybe he considers it the epitome of Great Art to make us ponder death so bracingly. (I wonder if he’s watched The Death of Louis XIV, which mercilessly chronicles an icon’s incremental decay.) But there’s no liberation — no sense of a great moral reckoning — in this posturing, flamboyantly ponderous character study.
There will be those who find Capone an absolute hoot, digging its demented, ludicrous excesses. Me, I just felt bad — mostly for Al Capone. Sure, he was a murderer and a racketeer who ruined countless lives. But I don’t think even he deserves what this movie does to him.