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Al Capone, All-American Boogeyman

A new biopic reveals what the antihero of Prohibition can teach us today.

Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Al Capone is a famous American boogeyman and a symbol of that mercifully brief and long-ago nightmare Prohibition. Boogeymen make good movie villains, and Capone has proved a useful antihero to American cinema in the years since booze came back. In 1932, only a year after the FBI finally nabbed the Chicago boss on tax evasion charges, Paul Muni played a Capone-like gangster in the pitch-black precode masterpiece Scarface (not to be confused with the 1983 “Say hello to my little friend” Scarface). It was scandalously violent for the time, depicting 46 on-screen murders, and a fitting mirror to a nation in the grip of a chaotic Depression.

In 1967, as protests against the war in Vietnam erupted across America, Roger Corman made a strange and sour gangster flick called The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, based on the bloody mob hit that turned public opinion against Capone (the café shootout scene turned out so well that the footage was reused in yet another Capone biopic eight years later). In the late 1980s, when Wall Street fat cats were epitomizing a new kind of American villain, Robert de Niro played Capone in 1987’s The Untouchables, sleek as a healthy young seal in pinstripe suits.

This week, a new Capone biopic by Fantastic Four director Josh Trank hits streaming services. If the gangster was “untouchable” in 1987, he is positively shopworn in Capone, which streams online from May 11. Tom Hardy stars as Capone living out his final years at home in Florida, released early from jail due to his raging neurosyphilis. He’s falling apart at the seams, and early reviews have made much of Hardy’s disgusting inhabitation of the elderly gangster: His eyes grow vampirically bloodshot as the movie progresses, and he shits himself at least twice (in one scene it’s unclear what form his incontinence takes).

Those reviews have also roundly panned Capone, which is admittedly a sluggish film devoid of much tension. Many scenes take place inside Capone’s own head, as he hallucinates old gangster chums (Matt Dillon plays the imaginary old friend “Johnny”) and the ghosts of various solemn little boys (Capone’s own former self or innocent younger versions of men he’s had killed?). In between bouts of nastiness to his wife and son, however, our cognitively declining hero does manage to establish some plot stakes. Capone is convinced that he buried $10 million somewhere on his property and spends the movie hunting his fragmented mind for clues to its whereabouts.

“Dig where it’s wet,” a young lady tells him in a dream, sexily. “Where it’s wet” in the movie is a huge lake on Capone’s Florida estate, where alligators roam the murky depths. While Capone lumbers on the trail of hidden treasure, he sees men lurking on the lake’s banks, seemingly spying on him. Is this paranoid dementia, or is the FBI really after that money too? In one unforgettable scene, Capone joins his imaginary friend Johnny on a boat to go fishing. An alligator steals Capone’s catch, so naturally he whips out a shotgun and blows the reptile away. “This is what happens when you spend too much time in Florida,” imaginary Johnny tells Capone, and he has a point.

As in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, Florida’s man-eating swamps here represent a mixture of America’s muddy history and the protagonist’s subconscious, which in Capone’s case is swirling with confusion and violence. If his identity is indeed mixed up with that lake, then Capone’s murder of the alligator is a suicidal gesture, which fits with the rest of the portrait: When Capone insults his loving wife, Mae (the excellent Linda Cardellini), for example, he is hurting himself as much as he hurts her. He has no idea where his real treasure lies.

Hardy does an enthusiastic job with his role, but it’s hard to deny that he’s miscast. There are some glowing scenes, as when he sings “If I Were King of the Forest” along with the Cowardly Lion during a home screening of The Wizard of Oz. The projector’s light dances over his face, as Capone melts away into childhood. Hardy also chomps on his cigars (later carrots, on doctor’s orders) with a ruminative, bovine placidity that makes his violent outbursts all the more effective.

The problem is that Hardy is too encased in makeup to move his face properly. Usually actors are aged artificially on-screen when they are playing the same person at different moments in the same lifetime, like Mahershala Ali in the third season of True Detective. But Hardy never plays young Capone in this movie—only the old man. When an older actor could have played this role without prosthetics, why bother dressing up a young actor to do it less effectively?

It’s a confusing choice for Trank, for whom Capone is something of a last-ditch attempt at righting his career. After Fantastic Four flopped so spectacularly, Trank and his methods were blamed for ruining the project. In an interview with Variety earlier this year, Trank explained that he identifies with Al Capone, not “as a gangster or a bootlegger” but as a celebrity whose public image flew out of his control. “Al Capone,” Trank said, “was going through a lack of ownership of his own identity because his life experience had been turned into a myth for American culture to create stories out of.”

In his review of the film for Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote that “Capone shows little evidence that there’s any new insight to be mined from this particular world of doomed American outsider capitalism; all the lonely, poison men have been plenty diagnosed by now.” It’s certainly true that Capone has less to say to contemporary America than Scarface or The Valentine’s Day Massacre. But if we accept this movie about Al Capone’s dotage as an introspective project about Trank’s own failures, with the gangster symbolizing his own washed-up, wilderness years, then it has an oddly timely message.

If the Trump administration has taught us anything, it’s that bitter men with unexamined consciences are extremely dangerous. Bad old men can seem harmless under their gray hair, but even as their physical strength wanes, they exude a destructive entropy like a perfume. Trank has hit on a vein of darkness in Capone, one that links self-hatred with abuse of others. If you squint, you’ll see a familiar glint in Hardy’s eyes—the dangerous glimmer of egomania—and just a little in the alligator’s, too.