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Nothing in the Vault 

Capone's pointless spectacle

click to enlarge Showing up to my first party after quarantine.

Capone

Showing up to my first party after quarantine.

CAPONE. From what I gather, Josh Trank had big plans from the beginning: to spring forth fully formed and become a big-budget big deal, a Director of Note. Given only Chronicle (2012), his big-screen debut — co-written by then-prolific, now-canceled Max Landis — I'd have given pretty good odds that he might pull it off. Chronicle imbued superheroes with elements of introspection and angst while also elevating the shop-worn found-footage model to an unparalleled level of invention and spectacle. And it managed to tell a compelling story in less than 90 minutes — bracing stuff.

But then, famously, Trank signed on for Fantastic Four (2015) and the machine just about ground him up. The movie is, as widely reported, basically unwatchable. Trank would maintain that the final product bears little similarity to his vision for it, that it was taken away from him and destroyed by the studio. Because I so enjoyed Chronicle I want to believe him (this impulse seems to be shored up by the fact that IMDb lists editor Stephen E. Rivkin as an uncredited co-director on Fantastic Four). Regardless, it was and remains a debacle. Trank became the butt of the joke and subject to a mountain of scorn. He didn't make a movie for five years; Capone, his return, is very much a commentary on perception, control and life in the public eye, albeit a muddled, nasty and generally inscrutable one.

Title cards inform us that we will observe the last year of Fonse Capone (Tom Hardy), sometimes Fonzo to his friends, never Al. Having served a prison sentence of a decade or so, Capone has been released to live out his final months on his Florida estate. At 47, he presents as a decidedly old man, due in large part to the ravages of neurosyphilis. Intermittently lucid, he spends most of his hours, waking and asleep, trapped in the corridors of his rotting mind, incontinent, afraid, often enraged. He constantly sucks on cigars and shrieks in Italian at unseen observers, purported assassins. His long-suffering wife Mae (Linda Cardellini) provides constant care and support, simultaneously liquidating Fonse's collection of sculptures and paintings to try to stay solvent. Outside interests, including a doctor with secrets (Kyle MacLachlan), seem to believe Fonse has hidden a substantial amount of cash somewhere on the property. Fonse believes it, too, but his memory isn't so good.

The search for that money would appear to be the central conflict of this story but ultimately it's a MacGuffin within a fugue-tour of a rapidly decaying mind. As Capone wanders through the corridors and pathways of his mansion and his memory, the perspective shifts between the literal and the dreamed, with only faint lines of demarcation between the two. It's a complicated trick to pull off and I can't say this movie succeeds at it.

Which is not to say it's a failure, exactly. The opening credits pointedly list Trank as writer, director AND editor in what would appear to be a forceful declaration that, like it or not, this one is decidedly his. And to his credit, it is a competently, sometimes sumptuously crafted thing. Beautifully lit and photographed by Peter Deming (a frequent collaborator with David Lynch and Sam Raimi), acted by a formidable cast (Matt Dillon steals a couple of scenes) and scored by rapper/producer El-P, né Jamie Meline (most recently half of Run the Jewels), Capone creates a distinctive, even singular, visual and sonic atmosphere to reinforce the uncertainty of its protagonist's reality. And that's all well and good, except that by the end I can't really explain why any of it happened.

With its tagline — "We all pay for our crimes in the end" — and its emphasis on hideous violence and unpleasant excretions, Capone would, on its face, seem to attempt to examine a version of the American dream, the rise to wealth and power that, by its nature, requires the diminishment and destruction of obstacles, including other people. By extension, that would mean Trank is attempting something like allegory, using Fonse as a totem, maybe, for the ills and vagaries of big business, or contemporary capitalism. Maybe that's an overreach, but that's the thing about Capone: its moral ambiguity muddles the narrative to the extent that it doesn't seem to know what it is trying to say. This effect is amplified by Hardy's cartoonish performance. Caked in old-age makeup, pitching his voice from the basement to the attic, trying to disappear and fill the frame at the same time; he's doing everything and nothing. Unsettling, to be sure, but intentional? One wonders. He and his director are fascinated by this character and his story, but the lasting impression of their version makes me wonder why. R. 103M. AMAZON STREAMING.

John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.

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John J. Bennett

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