When Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America appeared in 1984 – ah yes, I remember it well! – it seemed to be twilight time for the gangster genre. That film presented itself as the hollowed-out shell of a typical gangster movie: there were fine scenes of criminal action, carousing and violence alright, but they took a decided second place to the overpowering waves of melancholia constructed via an elaborate flashback structure. Regrets: these hoods – at least the ones who managed to survive into old age – had many (to turn the Sinatra standard on its head).
Ever since – for 36 years now! – gangster films have been churning over this passage from the boisterous action-image into the reflective time-image. Martin Scorsese personally replayed the entire cycle in high style, from Goodfellas (1990) through Casino (1995) to the ultra-sad The Irishman (2019), with a stopover in TV for Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014). Michael Mann dwells, variously, in the way-stations between these extreme points of the genre. The examples can be multiplied, and indeed I already found myself doing that math in my 1998 book on Once Upon a Time in America.
But Capone jumps, from the word go, into a post-genre abyss. There are no normal flashbacks to the daring exploits of yesteryear; no trial scenes or backstory (only of the most attenuated, allusive sort). Even the burst of a stray Tommy Gun (that manages to find its way into the gangster’s hands) turns out to be something miserable and pathetic: there is no glorious, death-driven last stand for any Tony Montana figure here. Capone gives it to you up front: it’s a gangster movie under the sign of neurosyphilis, no less. Ouch!
I was intrigued by Josh Trank’s debut feature, the supernatural parable Chronicle (2012) – arresting enough even on a tiny screen in the middle of an international plane flight. I skipped his entry in the superhero cycle (Fantastic Four, 2015) and landed on Capone, the oddness of which a few critics insisted on and championed (another intriguing feature: its producer is Lawrence Bender, known for his association with Tarantino; his main non-TV credits in recent years have been Neil Jordan’s Greta  and Scorsese’s Silence ). And odd, Capone surely is.
From the very beginning, we are in a ghostly Theatre of Memory, with Capone (Tom Hardy) wandering down the empty corridors of his Scarface-style Florida mansion, chasing a little boy holding a balloon, or (later on) making his way through a seemingly infinite ballroom and sharing a croaky duet with Louis Armstrong (Troy Anderson) on “Blueberry Hill”. Meanwhile, in the realm of dour reality, everything is literally for sale, with Capone’s art collection being carted off; times are hard for ex-crooks out of jail.
In the hero’s hyper-subjective dreamland, however, there are more than a few allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – not to mention Agent Cooper’s movements through the various Lodges of the afterlife in Twin Peaks (1990-1991, 2017) – but I kept flashing (pertinently or not) onto Alain Resnais’ Providence (1977). After all, that haunted-memory-piece was the first to make a blackly comic show of the central character’s blasted incontinence, which is such a prominent feature here (alongside the chomped cigars that get swapped out, on medical orders, for carrots).
For a few minutes into Capone, I nurtured positive expectations. The faded hero (usually addressed here as Fonse – “happy days”, indeed) who listens to his own mediatic myth recycled on sensational radio re-enactments; the Marienbad-like camera-prowls along ornate architectural fittings (Resnais, again); the tensions with his wife, Mae (Linda Cardellini) and, less interestingly, his “lost” son, Tony (Mason Guccione) – all this held a glimmer of something.
I figured the excessive make-up effects – after The Irishman, gangsters are really afflicted with face-trouble – might calm down, or become less noticeable. They do not. Hardy goes far out on a crazy trajectory of grotesque decrepitude; it’s hard to follow him all the way. I shifted my expectation: in its excess, could Capone be re-introducing Trank as a curious between-trash-and-art figure like Matthew Bright, whose promising writer-director career started so well with Freeway (1996) and, ultimately (or to date, at any rate), so sadly hit the rocks after Tiptoes (2003)? Capone occasionally reminded me of Bright’s disquieting Bundy (2002) or Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby (1999). But not enough to ease the overall pain.
Not terribly much happens in the script (handled, like the editing, by Trank). There’s only one point of intrigue, floating above it all: where did Capone hide his apparently vast reserve of criminally-ill-gained moolah? As in Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken (2019), we are plunged into strange scenes that seem a bit impossible, like Capone tearing off from his mansion to go on a jolly boat fishing trip with his old pal, Johnny (Matt Dillon – and just who is that figure meant to be in the real gangster history? Anybody in particular, or just a representative amalgam?).
These scenes indeed are impossible – especially given that Johnny is long dead, betrayed and sentenced to execution by Capone himself. Sometimes we get the retrospective tip-off of that impossibility, with Capone coming back to semi-consciousness after a stroke episode; sometimes we don’t. We are meant to just drift, uneasily, through what Charles Brackett once called (in reference to his own script-in-progress) “a not very arresting blur of episodes”. Capone becomes a dreamlike haze, pitched somewhere between David Lynch and Inception (2010) – the latter, especially, when the digital water-wave effects come thundering down on our blanked-out, (literally) shitty Mr Big.
As in many a gangster picture, there is another, less zonked-out, all-pervasive consciousness occasionally intruding via audio-surveillance apparatuses: the government agents who, too, want to know where all that dough is stashed (don’t we all?). There is a good moment when even Capone’s personal doctor, Karlock (Kyle MacLachlan), is revealed to be part of this omni-invasive “sting”. But not even the Doctoral tricks of Freudian free association and auto-suggestive sketching can unearth what is simply no longer there in Capone’s neurosyphilitic head (if the film is trying to play on the ambiguity that the mobster may simply be dissembling – as is suggested at one point – the vacillation doesn’t work).
I kept imagining a Brian De Palma/Snake Eyes-type finale in which the camera alone, beyond any fictive POV, would X-ray this notorious hiding place for cash inside that garish statue Capone keeps eyeing on his front lawn – after it has been carted off to the dark shelter of some provincial county art museum. Alas, instead, a bit of dreary, uneventful what-happened-after on-screen narration/exposition once again deflated my hope.
© Adrian Martin 18 May 2020