If an Englishman’s home is his castle, the mobster’s palatial estate represents the fruits of his tyranny. In Josh Trank’s febrile imagining of Al ‘Scarface’ Capone’s last days on the planet, a swish Florida hacienda the syphilis-ridden psychopath called home, are framed as a series of gothic hallucinations.Those expecting a normal-service gangster movie will be sorely disappointed by this rewarding oddity. It isn’t your common-or-garden mob job, closer in spirit perhaps to left-field works such as Performance (1970) than old-school thrillers such as The Untouchables (1987).
It offers an abstract portrait of a mind collapsing like a star in the heavens, fronted by a superlative turn by Tom Hardy—an actor, it’s worth adding, who has form deconstructing real-life gangsters and crooks on screen. Hardy got started in the genre appearing in Mockney rubbish like Layer Cake (2004) and Rock N Rolla (2008), but playing famous hoodlums is a different kettle of fish, boasts far richer pickings. Nicolas Winding Refn’s audacious and dazzling Bronson (2008) gave Hardy an opportunity to craft an attention-grabbing performance as Britain’s most uncontrollable prisoner, Michael Peterson, a Luton-born petty criminal who earned more time on the inside for bad behaviour than anything he did on the outside. Peterson regularly assaulted screws and attempted to murder his fellow cons at any given opportunity or moment of fancy. It is Refn’s film which set a template for Hardy to follow: Men reveling in acts of violence and exhibiting nihilistic behaviour, but also uncovering the vulnerability underneath. After all, nobody is born a monster. Charles Bronson (the alter ego name Peterson used to make him sound more like a double hard bastard) might well have cracked a few bones and skulls in his time, but the person he’s damaged most of all is himself. The fella has spent nearly his entire life behind bars, basking in sham celebrity.
In 2015’s underrated, less successful Legend, Hardy was again cast as a villain, or rather villains, as he was playing both the Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, only this time (despite the John Ford maxim-echoing title about printing the legend), the film was intent on showing up Ronnie and Reggie for what they really were: a pair of maniacs who wallowed in superficial glamour. Sham celebrity, superficial glamour, the flashbulb of the camera, the media eye—the gangster world has its own version of the Hollywood star system.
As the deranged and ultra-competitive siblings, Hardy again excelled at reveling in the big moments – the fighting, the murders of George Cornell and Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie – but classic bravado is underscored, as with Bronson, with notes of vulnerability, showing how these two brothers routinely tormented each other. They mirrored one another, sometimes neither of them could stand the reflection. It’s part of the genre’s entertaining appeal, watching Joe Pesci go postal on a rival, or, closer to home, Cockney goons giving it the ‘You fackin’ slag cunt!’ as they bash some herbert’s cannister in, but Legend attempted to go deeper into the Kray mythology, making its title ironic.
The Godfather of All Gangsters
Perhaps, then, all roads lead to Al Capone, the man known to the world as Scarface. In Capone, his family and associates address him as ‘Fonse’ (short for Alfonso). Few 20th century gangsters can match his reputation and iconic image. Unlike Charles Bronson or the Krays, Al Capone was mythologised during his years at the top by Pre-code Hollywood movies and has been a cultural icon and obsession ever since. Bronson, until the film, was a local sensation, the Krays more widely known, but neither is on par with the 1920s and early 30s era of the American gangster. It’s a whole different ballgame.
Trank’s third feature follows motifs and aspects of gothic fiction narratives. It is a story of somebody locked away, trapped, isolated, mentally and physically cut off from the world. It begins with an amusing, scene-setting audio cue reference to the ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ cliché, which, while not gothic per se, is fitting as a mood-setter, though it’s more Universal Horror than anything. (The sound of moaning, desolate wind crops up throughout the movie, too, the sound design mixing naturalistic weather phenomenon with what might be howling voices of the damned, the Jacob Marley-style groans of Fonse’s victims coming back to haunt him.)
As production company logos appear in succession, we hear dripping rain, the first notes of plaintive music and the rumble of distant thunder, which subsequently gets audibly closer and closer, louder and louder. It’s our first clue to Trank’s intentions in the unexpected, that this will not be a typical gangster movie motored by scenes of new-money excess and the cheap thrills of basking in criminality. Text appears on screen, setting the scene for the viewer. Capone was put away for tax evasion, then let out after less than 10 years, due to the advanced effects of neurosyphilis, which he contracted in his teens. Let out on compassionate grounds, he was ensconced in his Florida house a virtual prisoner, waiting to kick the bucket, vultures circling to pick off what remained of his financial legacy.
The first image of the film is a fade in and pan down from a gloomy sky at dusk to an establishing long shot of a Spanish-style mansion and large grounds dotted with statues (including one of Julius Caesar). The next cut takes us into the house and a murky corridor lit with wall lamps emitting a soft amber light, leaving large portions of the walls between the lamps in shadow. Cinematographer, the renowned Peter Deming, adds to the mood of unease by deploying a steady zoom-in.
An abrupt cut follows, presenting Capone in silk pyjamas and dressing gown, positioned more or less in centre frame, in medium shot, the camera pulling away, but the compositional space, the walls on either side, give off a hemmed-in feel. Al Capone looks pensive. Already, via composition, discreet camera movement and editing, we see a revered and reviled man creeping around his own house, upending our expectations of how these types are usually introduced. It is vulnerable, unexpected and compellingly strange. Something is amiss. A man wandering his house at night has a distinct Horace Walpole-like flavour. The author of The Castle of Otranto (1764) was inspired to instigate an entire literary genre and movement after having a nightmare about wandering his house and seeing a ghost. Indeed, this genre staple of cinema – creeping around in the dark or in dull light – takes us right back to the very origins of gothic.
Another cut follows, a reverse on Capone, now from behind, the dolly shot and angle mirroring the previous shot. The next cut takes us inside a darkened room, the camera is positioned so we see Al open the door, the dull golden light from the corridor cuts the frame vertically, and the lord of the manor appears, almost scowling. It’s noticeable, too, he takes a deep breath. The reverse shot is on an empty room, though there is a closet door ajar, it seems to close slightly of its own accord (or it could be the effect of a draft, as a wind effect is used on the soundtrack).
The camera follows Capone into the room, from behind at a bottom-level height, the handle of the fire poker close to being in the centre of the frame (a play on the much-imitated Leone shot of a gunfighter about to drawer, perhaps). The camera creeps behind Capone – there’s no better word for it – and then cuts to a medium close-up of his face, the camera now tracking backwards. Another quick cut follows back to the fire poker, though now it is raised and the camera tilts up, following the line of action and movement of the fire poker as Capone prepares to hit somebody.
The next cut is a medium close-up of the gangster’s expectant face, as he opens the closet door. He glances sideways then downwards. The next shot is unexpected: A little girl is hiding. After a brief reaction shot to Capone, eyes wider, it goes back to the girl and she screams. It then cuts to Capone, who screams in return and he chases her out of the room. The opening notes of gothic horror tension are undercut by the big reveal: a game of Hide-and-seek.
Inside the Mind of a Madman
We learn, later on, there are no children in the house. There never were. Capone’s mind is so addled by the neurosyphilis and the effects of a recent stroke, we cannot trust what we are seeing when he’s left to his own devices, when a scene begins Fonse solo and then others come into it. Is it fantasy, then, or an old memory reappearing from happier times? Trank subtlety allows us to share Capone’s headspace without, at least initially, telling us. The anchor to reality we get is Mae, Al Capone’s Irish American wife, played by Linda Cardellini and only later, when the hallucinations get more complex and nightmarish, can we clearly delineate fantasy from reality. Mae is important to the film because she is essentially our emotional conduit and pair of eyes. Like the viewer, Mae watches Fonse’s decline helplessly, knowing there isn’t anything, no course of action, to stop his condition.
The beginning, really, is a sort of sucker punch, but we don’t register its effects for a while, simply because we don’t have the full facts. What it does is offer an artistic, cinematic, representation of the phantoms plaguing Capone, symbols and characters from his old life. Capone chases the girl out into the grounds and there’s a group of kids who all swarm the gangster in the rain, and it’s suddenly very light and endearing, but ironically self-deceiving, as if Trank is restaging the romantic image of the evil crime lord who terrorises his rivals and the world but is kind to children and enjoys their uncomplicated company. Again, Trank is satirising the figure of the gangster in cinema, especially Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1971), who dies chasing his grandson around the garden.
As the film commences, the visions of death become more intense and more extravagant, Trank was surely influenced, too, by Stanley Kubrick’s haunted-house masterwork, The Shining (1980), as Al openly talks to the dead, even goes fishing with one ghost, shoots a crocodile for the crime of stealing a fish he’s caught (this scene is heavily symbolic and connects later to another reverie), goes to a 1920s party which turns into a massacre, crawls over a pile of corpses in the street, and lets loose on his estate with a gold-plated tommy gun in one last act of frustrated aggression, one last futile display, a scene which is intended as a tongue-in-cheek homage to the end of Brian De Palm’s Scarface (1983).
For extra gothic credits, in one particularly surreal scene, Matt Dillion’s Johnny, an old pal of Al’s, cuts out his eyeballs and hands them to his boss, asking him to see the truth of the situation (a visual pun on audience perspective). There’s even a subplot about buried money and an illegitimate son attempting contact, only Al is so stricken by memory loss, physical impairment and no longer able to separate dreams from waking life, he can’t remember where the money is buried or whether he has another son or not – no matter how others press him time and time again.
Capone is formally playful as a gothic pastiche and fascinating, too, with regards to a complete lack of interest in soulful insight. As Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019) put it: ‘It’s what it is’. You cannot expect introspection and regret from people incapable of doing so, mentally infirm or not. It’s not how they think or operate. Fonse’s miserable end was just desserts for a life spent as a monster. In this instance, Capone is winningly mean-spirited and honest. After all, the director included not one, but two, scenes in which Scarface shits his pants. Once in bed at night, his poor wife roused from slumber by the almighty stink, pulling back the sheets to reveal a big brown mess, and then during an interview with the FBI. (The sound effects in the latter are hilarious.)
In Capone we see no heyday glamour, dazzling allure, nor sense of accomplishment from life, the American dream is a scab Trank picks at it. Everything presented is a mix of gothic and satire on gangster image. Capone’s sorry life was about accruing money, fetishizing riches, murdering to secure his wealth and punishing those who transgressed his edicts. During 103 engrossing minutes, the hacienda is stripped of assets by auctioneers until there is, like the man at the centre of the story, nothing left inside. It isn’t the house as gothic ruin, what’s left of Fonse’s mind.