Tom Hardy Shows Why You Never Go Fully Syphilitic In ‘Capone’

At this point, we moviegoers may be fully stocked on “emotional truth.” In the years since Steven Spielberg gave us that 20 minute POV-style depiction of the Normandy landing in Saving Private Ryan, filmmakers have used every trick in the book to convey their subject’s transitory inner state. Shakier camera work, jumpier editing, busier sound — you could draw a straight line from Private Ryan‘s POV sequence to Christopher Nolan’s famously muddled dialogue. “I wanted you to feel what they were feeling,” the filmmakers would surely say.

After 20-odd years of increasingly exhaustive subjectivity, I find myself crying out for context. So it was watching Capone, from Josh Trank (written, directed, and edited by), who began his career solidifying the found-footage conceit as the wunderkind director of Chronicle, and now finds himself in need of redemption after the high-profile debacle of Fantastic Four (something it’s fairly easy to believe wasn’t Trank’s fault).

Capone, originally called “Fonzo,” after what friends of Alphonse Capone actually called him, is an impressionistic take on the final year of the famous gangster’s life, when Capone was cooped up in his big Florida proto-McMansion dying of tertiary syphilis. Doctors had tried everything available at the time to cure Capone’s syphilis while he was still in prison, from tryparsamide to injecting him with malaria, in the hopes that the fevers would kill the disease, to eventually penicillin. But by then it was too late and the authorities simply released an increasingly insensate Capone to die at home.

Capone picks up after that, when all is lost, Capone has the mind of a 12-year-old, and historical context is mostly unnecessary. The better for Trank to be able to focus solely on filmmaking tricks, like people who aren’t really there, sounds that only the protagonist can hear, close-ups of bloodshot eyes, etc. I think I might’ve liked to see a slightly earlier version of Capone’s life, with doctors torturing him with failed cures, rather than this version, where Capone rambles, talks to dead people, and has a recurring vision of a kid with a balloon. Who is this kid? Why does he matter? What does the balloon mean? It’s all up for interpretation, maaaaaan.

Tropic Thunder popularized the extremely accurate but problematically worded notion that an actor should “never go full retard.” Capone seems to suggest a corollary where maybe actors should never go fully convalescent or tertiary syphilitic (Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady and Cate Blanchett theatrically coughing as the old lady version of her character in Benjamin Button may have helped lead us here). Tom Hardy — who is normally one of my favorite actors to watch grunt, scowl, nod, and squint — pisses himself, shits himself, chews a carrot like Bugs Bunny, and blows holes in alligators in Capone, but broadly speaking, plays a character who is senile to the point of irrelevance. There’s theoretically a topical hook here, in the idea of being at the mercy of senile authority figures, but Trank never quite finds it.

The comedian Patton Oswalt used to have a bit about how The Passion of the Christ, a movie about just the final, most painful hours of Jesus’s life, would be like making a movie about Albert Einstein, but focusing only the 12 hours he spent on the toilet after eating some bad clams (something like that, I can’t video of it online). Capone comes disturbingly close to making that Albert Einstein shitting diarrhea clams biopic a reality.

As I watched Hardy (surely one of the most enjoyable actors of his generation, which even Venom proves) croak out an incomprehensible mix of English, Italian, and Caveman, I couldn’t help but think what a perfect comeback role this could’ve been for Val Kilmer. Kilmer hasn’t had a starring role since a tracheostomy robbed him of his natural speaking voice, and a comeback role as Capone, in which a post-cancer Kilmer proved he can still act by playing a gangster coming to grips with his own irrelevance would’ve offered some symbolic heft.

As it stands, the Capone played by the notably able-bodied Hardy spends a whole movie tilting at windmills we know will vanish after a jump cut while his family and the authorities pump him for information about a secret cache of money we know will never materialize. The score by El-P from Run The Jewels (his first) at least gives the proceedings some seasoning, but we hardly hear it until the last third of the movie.

Painstaking subjectivity maybe isn’t the prize it seems when the subject is syphilitic, incontinent, and senile. Context is not the enemy.

‘Capone’ hits VOD on Tuesday, May 12. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.