I love Tom Hardy. Unlike most fanboys and girls, my love for him spans long before his Christopher Nolan breakout-phase. Before donning the Bane mask, Tom Hardy was in a little-known indie-film called Stuart: A Life Backwards, opposite Benedict Cumberbatch. He played a mentally handicapped man with muscular dystrophy and serious psychological issues. When the credits had finished rolling and I had finally stopped sobbing into my pillow, I knew that this was an actor who could rock the industry.
A quick scan through his IMDb page indicates gravitation towards intense character pieces that evoke sympathy for morally repugnant individuals. As Heathcliff – one of the most abusive and violent characters in literary history – he brought a vulnerability to the role not seen in the billion other adaptations of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Even as a mobster and rapist in the 2009 mini-series The Take, there were tiny glimpses of humanity in a character that simply cannot be humanized.
That is why I understand why he took this role. It is also why the film irritates me to no end: Hardy deserved better.
Al Capone: A Quick Background
Despite his reputation, Capone was known to be quite a good guy within his community. He was a Robin Hood-like figure who donated to orphans and opened soup kitchens during the Great Depression. It was the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 that lead to his notoriety in the public eye. Despite his reputation for bootlegging, prostitution, extortion, and murder, it was tax evasion that got him caught in the end.
He was officially diagnosed with syphilis (and gonorrhea) at the age of 33. Seven years into his sentence, the guards, doctors, and even other inmates began to notice he was not acting normally. Eventually, after receiving parole on medical grounds, Capone took residence in his home on Palm Island, Florida.
Capone: The Premise
The Mental Decline of a Mob Boss
If you think Al Capone’s life would make the perfect fodder for a film, you’d be right. There are plenty of films based on his heyday, including Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), Roger Corman’s The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), and the original Scarface (the 1932 version directed by Howard Hawks). This is probably why Capone‘s writer/director Josh Trank decided he would go in the opposite direction and focus on the torture of a man’s mental decline.
We have seen this narrative work. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining perfectly chronicled a man’s descent into madness (supernatural entities or not). More recently, Todd Phillip’s Joker portrayed Arthur Fleck’s transformation from a troubled soul to a deranged killer.
Unfortunately, this film was helmed by the same man who brought the turd that was 2015’s reboot of Fantastic Four into the world. Hoping for an Oscar-worthy screenplay was always going to be a stretch.
The Plot That Slowly Goes Nowhere
The film centers around an (alleged) bag of cash that Capone hid before being incarcerated. The bummer is that syphilis has eaten away at his memory, so he cannot remember where he stashed the cash. In fact, as an audience we can’t really be sure he even did stash any cash, considering he is almost a vegetable by this point. However, this central plot point is based on legend. Capone’s niece, Diedre Marie Capone has gone on record saying that her uncle admitted to her he stashed a large amount of money. Problem is, he told her this while his brain was rotting, so again, we will never know the truth.
While vultures descend to extract the location of the hidden fortune from his damaged mind in whatever way they can, we are treated to scene after scene of Alphonse Capone (Fonse to his family) losing his mind and eventually dying a sad and humiliating death.
Recognition really has to go to Linda Cardellini, who plays Mae, Fonse’s long-suffering but sassy wife. I truly felt that her character was conflicted by both love and hate for the man she was doomed to care for. Her entire character can be summed up in possibly the best line in the film, “Twenty-eight years I had to wait for some peace and quiet. He don’t scare me”.
However, the performance by Tom Hardy is by far the greatest asset this film has. The fact that Hardy had to act in prosthetics, put on a fake voice and accent, all while holding a cigar (and later a carrot) between his teeth, is a testament to just how dedicated he is as an actor. It’s such a shame that the people behind the camera weren’t as invested as their leading man was.
The Semi-successful Use of Symbolism
Despite the woefully dull screenplay, I will concede that there was an intriguing motif at play. Throughout the film, Fonse is plagued by visions of a young boy with a golden balloon. The boy’s identity is debatable. It may be a personification of Fonse’s youth. Or it may be the guilt he harbors over not knowing his illegitimate son (more on that pointless plot device in a moment). As more of his possessions are sold off to pay his debts, and more of his sanity rots away, his visions change to those of golden balloons floating out of his reach.
An Identify Crisis
Capone really struggles with its identity: it doesn’t know which genre it wants to be. Does it want to be a horror, with ‘suspenseful’ music as Fonse walks towards haunting hallucinations? Does it want to be a crime thriller, with scattered scenes of mob violence? Or does it want to be a drama? There was a hopeful second when I thought we were headed towards a Citizen Kane-like “Rosebud” moment. Alas, the gold balloon culminated in very little, as did the subplot it was supposedly meant to represent. Throughout the film, Fonse gets calls to his house from a random guy, who Fonse himself later identifies as his son. You’d think adding in a mystery character who the family doesn’t know about would cause tension and suspense.
The subplot of the bastard son – much like the main plot – never reaches a climax, and is ultimately unfulfilling.
Although there is no moment of revelation, when confronted with the possibility, both Mae and Junior seem utterly shocked that Fonse may have an illigimate son. I find it incredibly difficult to believe that either of them had a hard time imagining that Capone may have had extra-marital affairs and children. Al Capone was a man who dealt in illegal liquor, drugs, and sex, and who was dying of syphilus – the deadliest and most rampant STD before AIDS happened. The concept really was not as far fetched or suspesful as the film tried to make it seem.
I may be in the minority because Al Capone really was a terrible person in many ways, but by the end of his life, he didn’t even know his name. He thought his own family had kidnapped him and he had the mentality of a 12-year-old child. It doesn’t matter that he was once the kingpin of Chicago’s mob scene. By the end he was mush. He was just an ordinary human being dying a horrible death. To glorify that in any way – no matter what he had done when he knew what the hell was happening – is pretty inhumane.
Which begs the question: why was this film made in the first place? Is it meant to be torture porn for sadists who like watching old guys lose their sanity and shit themselves? If so, then bravo Josh Trank, you did it.
The Ugly: Stream it or Skip it?
If you jump onto Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll be bombarded with similar criticisms to the ones I’ve discussed above. In other words, I’m not alone in hating this movie, and my feelings are not entirely unwarranted.
That being said, we are living in the time of coronavirus. I know what it’s like to be trapped inside as well as anyone else. I’m not going to say this is an entertaining 1 hour and 45 minutes, but when Netflix simply cannot keep up with demand, sometimes we have to scrape the bottom of the barrel.
If you’re a hardcore Tom Hardy fan, you may actually enjoy this film based on his presence alone. However, I would recommend you try Stuart: A Life Backwards, which can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video. It’s super depressing, but unlike Capone, at least there’s a point to it.