Phil on Film Index
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
You have to hand it to Lars von Trier, the man knows how to make waves, and with his new film Antichrist, the director has whipped up a tsunami. The film's debut in Cannes achieved instant infamy, the screening being marked by walkouts, fainting, booing, catcalls and even the odd smattering of applause. No other film in competition met with such a divisive reaction, and at the press conference that followed, von Trier incurred the critics' wrath even further by announcing himself as "The best director in the world." It's hard to know whether the director was being serious or tongue-in-cheek in making such a grand proclamation, and it begs the question: how seriously should we take Antichrist? Is it, as the director has claimed, the most important film of his career, or is this incorrigible provocateur just fucking with us one more time?
Either way, von Trier wants to provoke a reaction, and the press have given him exactly what he wants, although most of the articles slamming Antichrist are the sort of idiotic caterwauling it's blessedly easy to ignore. However, despite the best efforts of self-appointed moral guardians everywhere, the film is not that easy to dismiss, and to do so would involve overlooking the extraordinary skill with which it has been made, and denying the fact that it has got under my skin, and inside my head, in a way very few films have managed in recent years. Some reviewers have suggested von Trier, who wrote the film while in the midst of depression, has lost his mind, and doesn't know what he's doing, but such a glib conclusion is ridiculous. I get the feeling von Trier knows exactly what he's doing with Antichrist, and it's up to the rest of us to figure it out.
The first suggestion that this may all be some kind of self-regarding joke occurs right at the start, when the opening credits simply read Lars von Trier and then Antichrist, as if the director is saying, "That's me!" The film then segues into a sequence shot in the ostentatiously beautiful style of a perfume commercial, with a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) having ecstatic, explicit sex in the shower and then the bedroom. As they make love, their young son crawls out of his crib and, mesmerised as we are by the snowflakes outside the open window, falls to his death. It is a stunning sequence, filmed in glossy black-and-white, with the slow-motion images scored to a moving Handel aria, and this is only the beginning of the film's visual wonders. With Antichrist, Anthony Dod Mantle has produced some of the most breathtakingly beautiful cinematography imaginable. From one scene to the next, he fills the frame with endlessly rich and atmospheric images; images which have haunted me ever since I saw the film.
Most of those images come later in the picture, after the two lead characters have decided to deal with their grief by leaving the city for their cabin in the woods, a small idyll they call Eden. The female lead, known only as She, is devastated by their loss, breaking down at the funeral and spending time in a psychiatric ward to recover. Her controlling, rational husband worries that she is being prescribed too much medication, and as a therapist, he believes that the only way to overcome her pain is to deal with it head-on, confronting her fears. The film becomes a battleground between his rational approach and her increasingly irrational misery, and after they have arrived at Eden, the scales of power begin to tip in her favour. From the moment they set foot in the woods, Dafoe starts seeing suggestions of death and pain everywhere, and nature itself becomes a significant character in the film, growing increasingly hostile as acorns rain down relentlessly on the cabin roof, and leeches attach themselves to Dafoe's hand as he sleeps. When Gainsbourg walks on the grass she screams that the ground is burning, and as she moves through the forest the greenery behind her seems to distort in an insidiously unsettling way. "Nature is Satan's church," she mysteriously announces, and in this setting, von Trier and Mantle create an almost unbearable atmosphere of slowly enveloping dread.
And then there's the violence, although there's not quite as much of it as you might think. From the attention that has been paid to Antichrist's most notoriously bloody scenes, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the film is one long orgy of genital slicing. This is far from the case. Those scenes are simply the grand guignol climax to a film in which sexuality and violence are intrinsically linked – as they are in most horror films – and as difficult as they are to watch, they are no more obscene in context than any of the violence perpetrated in any standard entry in this genre. In any case, what has really stayed with me from Antichrist, far more than any act of physical violence, is the film's lacerating emotional violence. The performances from Dafoe and Gainsbourg are faultless, and while it's unfair that Dafoe's understated work in this film seems destined to be overlooked, it's impossible not be dazzled by the sheer courage and raw, almost feral nature of Gainsbourg's performance. She seems to complete inhabit her grieving character and the way she expresses her agony, and her increasingly unbridled sexual hysteria, is stunningly authentic.
Von Trier takes his cues from this character; the film grows more perverse and irrational as she does, which makes it hard to pin down exactly what he's trying to get at with the film, and many of the ideas that he throws into Antichrist's thematically dense mix admittedly seem to be half-formed and poorly conceived. I'm not sure about the link he seems to be making between female sexuality and the inherent darkness of nature, or whether he sees violence inflicted upon Dafoe as punishment for his arrogance, or how some of his more outré visual ideas fit together as part of the overall piece. But I suppose that's the nature of a film written in a fevered state by a man in the grip of clinical depression; it is as if von Trier has thrown all of his obsessions and ideas at this project in an effort to expunge himself of them, and has shaped them into a horror movie worthy of the name. All I can say in response is that Antichrist gripped me, disturbed me and moved me in the kind of visceral manner I haven't experienced since Gaspar Noé's Irréversible; it is an experience both horrifying and exhilarating. The best director in the world? Perhaps not, but Lars von Trier is unquestionably one of contemporary cinema's most daring, versatile and fascinating artists, and whatever his true motivation behind Antichrist, it is a staggering work of art.
Sunday, July 19, 2009
There can surely be no greater test of an actor's ability than to carry a whole film almost single-handedly, and in Duncan Jones' auspicious debut feature Moon, Sam Rockwell steps up to the task with a tremendous lead performance – actually, make that two tremendous lead performances. Aside from a few faces glimpsed on video monitors, Rockwell is the only human actor on show in Moon. His character Sam Bell is an astronaut who is the sole employee on a lunar mining base, and is finally coming to the end of his three-year contract. With the communications satellite out of action, Sam's only link with home is via recorded video messages, and his only companionship on the base comes in the form of Gerty, the ship's computer, who is voiced by Kevin Spacey in an ambiguously soothing fashion.
So, Sam is essentially all alone up there, but he only has two weeks to go before he can make the long-awaited journey home. Then he finds out he's not as alone as he thought. Another Sam turns up, also played by Rockwell, and after getting over their initial shock, the pair begin circling each other suspiciously. Each Sam accuses the other of being a clone, and then the realisation starts to dawn: what if they're both clones? Where is the real Sam? And are there more Sams stashed away somewhere? The editing, cinematography and visual effects trickery utilised to create the illusion of the two Sams interacting with each other is hugely impressive, but Rockwell is the man who really sells it.
Like Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Rockwell successfully delineates between two distinct characterisations, and manages to create a dynamic and tension between them. Sam One is likably bedraggled, having settled into the monotony of his job and biding his time until it's time to go home, while Sam Two is a little prickly and hostile – a replica, one presumes, of the Sam that initially accepted this position. As Sam One begins to degenerate, Sam Two gradually starts to come to terms with his situation, thus becoming more sympathetic, and Rockwell charts the development of both versions with remarkable skill. He's the only special effect the film needs.
After all, a film like Moon doesn't exactly have a lot of room in the budget for the kind of CGI-led spectacle one expects to find in a summer science-fiction thriller. The film cost something in the region of $5 million to produce, and the filmmakers have managed to squeeze every drop of value out of that tiny amount. Most of the film takes places with the confines of the Lunar Industries base (there's a nice irony in the fact that the dastardly corporation behind Sam's trauma is mining clean renewable energy), and many of the exterior shots are filmed with the use of miniatures, which adds a pleasing physicality to the surrounding moonscape.
The interior design of the base itself has a distinctly 70's vibe, which is probably intentional on the part of Jones, who references classic sci-fi films throughout – a hint of Solaris here, a dash of Silent Running there – but he also manages to develop his film's own individual personality. The fluid camerawork from Gary Shaw and Clint Mansell's haunting, instantly memorable score are huge factors in this regard. Most importantly, Moon is built upon a solid screenplay, with a story that makes sense and is as entertaining as it is intellectually stimulating. Jones has plenty of ideas to go along with his confident direction, and Moon's narrative subverts our expectations in a number of ways, although one could argue that the film is so thematically rich it has a tendency to touch on ideas rather than fully develop them. There's also a slight lull in the action around halfway through the picture, just after the two Sams have established exactly what's happening to them, but this is a minor flaw in a film that is generally well-paced, and which builds to a satisfying climax.
Ultimately, Moon succeeds because it is what so many bigger-budget films in this genre forget to be, a very human story, with Sam's experience touching on our fear of loneliness and death in a moving fashion. It all goes to show that you don't need a huge budget to make a first-rate science-fiction film; certainly not when you have buckets of ingenuity, a surfeit of ideas, and a central performance that ranks high among the year's best.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
In cinema, sex has long been the preserve of the young and the beautiful, so the opening sequence of Cloud 9 is one that will give many filmgoers a jolt. Inge (Ursula Werner) is a seamstress of indeterminate age, although we learn during the course of the picture that she's over 60 at least. We first find her ironing a pair of trousers and, after giving the matter some deep thought, she decides to deliver them back to their owner herself, with her unexpected arrival obviously delighting 76 year-old Karl (Horst Westphal). After he tries on the new trousers, and the pair exchange a few stilted pleasantries, Karl and Inge soon find themselves in each other's arms, pulling their clothes off before having sex on the floor of his apartment. As they make love, director Andreas Dresen refuses to look away, continuing to film in a frank manner, with his close-ups capturing every sag and wrinkle of their ageing flesh. This is certainly not how we're used to seeing sex depicted in the cinema.
A few other films have tried to explore the sexual desires of older people in the past – Roger Mitchell's The Mother is a recent example that springs to mind – but I can't think of any that have delved into the subject as Cloud 9 does. Dresen, who wrote the film along with three others, is probably aware that the sight of explicit geriatric sex will be a hurdle for many viewers, and so he has explored the topic through a familiar narrative framework, one that lets us see the themes as being universal and ageless. Inge's dilemma is to continue with an affair that has revitalised her spirits, or to end it and remain faithful to her husband Werner (Horst Rehberg), to whom she has been married for over thirty years. Werner is a good husband, and they have a loving relationship, but life with him is just a little staid and familiar, and Inge can't get the dashing, more passionate Karl out of her head. Her daughter advises Inge to carry on with Karl if it makes her happy, but the burden of guilt, of living a lie with her husband, is too much to bear.
The torment of dealing with these conflicting emotions is expressed by Werner's superb and deeply touching display in the central role. She performs with a complete lack of vanity and great sensitivity, and she is utterly authentic throughout. The scenes she shares with her husband late in the picture are emotionally wrenching, with Rehberg alternating between bouts of rage – chastising Inge for her "childish" behaviour – and desperately sad scenes in which he wears a resigned look in his eyes, defeated by the unexpected turn of events that has stolen his wife away from him. Dresen's patient direction gives the actors ample room to work in, allowing scenes to unfold in long takes and focusing on the small, banal touches that add extra dimensions to the characters. Werner's hobby of listening to a record of train noises, for example, or the dirty joke Karl tells that later sends Inge into paroxysms of laughter, much to her husband's bemusement.
Cloud 9 is also expertly shot, with cinematographer Michael Hammon, bathing Inge's scenes with Karl in beautiful sunlight, while the stultifying nature of her marriage to Werner is suggested by the cramped confines of their drab apartment. The sex scenes are filmed in a similarly skilful fashion, explicit without being prurient, and capturing an affecting sense of intimacy between the participants. A number of reviews have raised an eyebrow at Cloud 9's sexual frankness, questioning the need for such graphic nudity in a film concerning pensioners, but we wouldn't ask those questions if a film featured a younger cast, and Dresen deserves credit for respecting this tale by treating it such a forthright manner. Just because Inge, Karl and Werner aren't in their prime it doesn't mean their story is any less relevant, and regardless of age, Cloud 9 is ultimately a quietly powerful film about ordinary people grappling with real emotions.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
I suppose there never was much chance I'd warm to Brüno, the new film from director Larry Charles and star Sacha Baron Cohen. After all, I didn't really care for their 2006 hit Borat either, and this is essentially the same movie, with a different, slightly weaker character taking centre stage. Brüno was always the lesser of the three comic alter egos Cohen conceived for Da Ali G Show, and it comes as no surprise that this shrill, one-note creation is incapable of carrying a feature, even one that clocks in at a shade over eighty minutes. Brüno spends that time travelling across America, finding groups and individuals who would be particularly uncomfortable in the presence of a flamboyant homosexual, and he proceeds to make innuendos and advances until they (a) walk out of the interview, (b) sit in awkward silence or (c) attack Cohen, forcing him to flee the scene. Parts of Brüno are amusing – just as parts of Borat were – but Cohen's shtick gets old very, very quickly.
Brüno is first introduced as a fashion presenter on Austrian TV, with his show Funkyzeit mit Brüno being, "The most popular fashion show in any German-speaking country...apart from Germany." He is a ludicrous creation, decked out in ridiculous outfits and spouting malapropisms in his cod-Austrian accent, but within the confines of the fashion industry, he's no more ridiculous than many of the people surrounding him. When he experiments disastrously with a velcro suit during Milan Fashion Week, however, Brüno quickly becomes persona non grata in the fashion world, and instead decides to travel to the United States to find fame by any means possible. That's the film's plot, but "plot" is perhaps not the right word, as it's basically a loose, ramshackle narrative that Cohen and Charles use as an excuse to string together a series of interchangeable sketches.
What follows is extremely hit-and-miss. Fans of Borat often claimed that it was a great work of social commentary, which exposed the ignorance and prejudices of his victims, but I always felt that it was a cheap stunt, taking down easy targets and saying nothing of significance. Brüno's most effective angle is perhaps the way in which he targets the public's hunger for fame, and their desire to do anything to achieve it. The best scene occurs after he has adopted an African baby, and he is holding auditions for other infants to take part in a controversial photoshoot. Brüno interviews a few parents and asks them what they would allow their child to do, asking if their baby is OK with lit phosphorus, being in a car without a seatbelt, or playing with heavy machinery. In all instances, the parents confirm that they'd be happy for their child to do whatever it takes to get the job. One mother, asked if her baby could lose 10lbs within a week, says that she could, and admits she'd consider liposuction if necessary.
The desperation and venality of these people is shocking, but it's the only moment in Brüno that has any significant impact. Cohen relies too often on the same setups and penis jokes, and the film becomes predictable as his antics repeatedly produce the expected result. Ron Paul walks out of an interview when Brüno starts making advances towards him; Paula Abdul does the same when she is asked to eat food from the chest of a naked, hairy man. When a nude Brüno tries to get into a hunter's tent at 3am, the hunter eventually loses his temper, as does the man at a swinger's party, who snaps when Brüno won't leave him alone as he's trying to have sex. Where is the gag in putting these people in uncomfortable situations, being pestered by a shrieking idiot, and watching them try to react in as polite and tolerant a manner as possible before finally deciding enough's enough? In one short clip, Brüno accosts Harrison Ford for an interview outside a restaurant. Ford simply growls, "Fuck off," and I empathised. In fact, I wanted to repeat the same phrase during Brüno's ghastly climactic sequence, when he is joined by Bono, Elton John, Sting and others to record his charity single – all of them so desperate to be seen as being in on the joke – but Brüno is a one-joke movie, and it beats that joke into the ground.
Sacha Baron Cohen is at an interesting juncture in his career right now. There's no doubting the man's talent or his Andy Kaufman-like dedication to his art, but there is a question mark against the way he has used it, making two films in which he essentially mocks and sneers at everyone he meets, no matter how they have behaved towards him. I've enjoyed his comic turns in both Talladega Nights and Sweeney Todd, and I know he has the ability to take his career in any direction he likes. Part of Cohen's genius is for courting publicity, and one hopes he is now too recognisable to make any more of these undercover prank movies. Brüno is one long dick joke, and ultimately Cohen himself comes off looking worse than any of his targets, appearing as a smug, condescending and cruel trickster. I think he's better than that, and now I hope he goes on to prove it.
When you've already had a hit with a quirky, Albuquerque-set comedy about a loving but dysfunctional family, what do you do next? For the producers behind Little Miss Sunshine, it seems the answer was to repeat the formula as closely as possible and hope for the best. From the title, to the presence of a beat-up old van, to the casting of Alan Arkin as a cranky old geezer who dotes on his grandchild, the similarities between Sunshine Cleaning and that 2006 Oscar-winner are too blatant to ignore. The film is clearly being aimed at the same market whom lapped up Little Miss Sunshine's trite idiosyncrasies and are hungry for more, and that's unfortunate, because there's plenty of potential going to waste here. Sunshine Cleaning is a film about two squabbling sisters who join forces to start their own crime scene cleanup operation, and one can imagine the macabre fun a daring filmmaker could have had with this premise. Alas, Christine Jeffs is not a daring filmmaker.
Sunshine Cleaning is the work of debutant screenwriter Megan Holley, but it feels like an early draft that needed more development before being rushed into production. The Lorkowski sisters are Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt), and their characters are quickly established in the opening moments. Once a popular high school cheerleader, Rose is now a downtrodden single mother, working as a cleaner and trapped in an affair with a cop (Steve Zahn), who has promised for years that they'll be together one day, although he shows no signs of leaving his wife. Despite all of this, Rose still forges ahead with a determination and spunk that her younger sister Norah (Emily Blunt) totally lacks; she's a pot-smoking waster who can't hold a job, and who hasn't found any sense of direction in her life. When Rose discovers that crime scene cleanup is a potentially lucrative market, she enlists her reluctant sister to help get Sunshine Cleaning off the ground.
The jaunty, lightly comic (but not very funny) situations they find themselves in early on, as they embark upon a variety of disgusting cleanup operations, are shadowed by the lingering trauma of their mother's death, which occurred when they were both children. The thing is, I never really believed that this happened; I didn't believe that they would jump so easily into this line of work, considering the circumstances under which they discovered their mother's body, and I didn't believe it was anything more than a plot device aimed at wringing some cathartic tears out of the actresses late on. Sunshine Cleaning is full of such devices – see also the references to an old TV show, or the mawkish CB radio moment – and their clumsy usage neuters the film's emotional impact, despite the best efforts of the cast. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are two of the best actresses around right now, and Adams' tremulous performance rapidly earns our sympathy, but there's a real imbalance between the amount of characterisation the two of them have to work with. While Rose is given multiple layers, Norah is a desperately underwritten figure, who barely develops during the course of the picture. When she finally announces, "I think I'm going to take a road trip," we're expected to take this as a sign of her maturation, and ask no more questions.
Other good actors are similarly left adrift. Mary Lynn Rajskub has a small role as a lesbian nurse who takes a shine to Norah, but the most baffling aspect of Sunshine Cleaning is the treatment of the talented actor Clifton Collins Jr. He is tentatively set up as a possible romantic interest for Rose, but is otherwise given no character, beyond a ponytail, a fondness for model aeroplanes, and a missing arm, with the filmmakers refraining from giving us the story behind his absent limb. As in Little Miss Sunshine, these quirks are hung on the character in lieu of real development; like Steve Carell's obsession with Proust, or Paul Dano's desire to be a pilot, they don't reveal anything meaningful to us about these people, it's just lazy writing. That laziness culminates in a happy ending which is contrived and insultingly neat, turning Sunshine Cleaning into the film it always wanted to be: an inoffensive, middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser. I doubt this mundane effort will have anything like the widespread appeal of its similarly titled predecessor, however. It seems Sunshine doesn't strike twice.
Sunday, July 05, 2009
The credits for Rudo y Cursi read like a Who's Who of contemporary Mexican cinema. Listed among the producers are Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu; three directors who, between them, have been responsible for some of the decade's most acclaimed films. The central roles are taken by Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, the actors who co-starred in 2001's Oscar-nominated Y tu mamá también, and who have since gone on to star in a variety of American and Mexican productions. And Rudo y Cursi has been written and directed by Carlos Cuarón, Alfonso's younger brother, who co-wrote Y tu mamá también and who is making his feature debut here. It has been almost a decade since these individuals first came to prominence on the crest of the Mexican New Wave, and Rudo y Cursi has the feel of a timely reunion.
Unfortunately, the film isn't an especially impressive or memorable effort, particularly coming from such a renowned group. Tato (Bernal) and Beto (Luna) are brothers living in the small coastal town of Cihuatlán, where they earn a living on a banana plantation. On weekends, they turn out for the local football team – Beto is the goalkeeper, while Tato is the star striker – and it is their good fortune one morning to run into a talent scout on their way to a match. His name is Batuta (Guillermo Francella), and although we can instantly see a shady side to this character, he offers both Tato and Beto a chance to sign up for rival teams in Mexico City. It's a pity Batuta's involvement doesn't end there, as we would have then been spared his incessant, grating voiceover, in which he tries to imbue various aspects of football matches with philosophical meaning, with his musings frequently straying into Swiss Toni territory ("Kicking a ball is very much like making love to a beautiful woman").
Batuta's redundant narration, repeatedly spelling things out for us instead of letting us discover them for ourselves, is symptomatic of the script's flaws. Much of what takes place in Rudo y Cursi feels dully over-familiar, with both characters following a predictable arc, hitting the brief heights before their fortunes downturn sharply. Tato, who cherishes pop stardom over footballing fame, becomes a star (earning the nickname "Cursi", meaning corny or vulgar), records a cheesy pop record and gets involved with a gold-digging TV presenter (Jessica Mas), who'll stay with him as long as he continues scoring on the pitch. Beto is much more serious about his career than his brother (he gets nicknamed "Rudo" or "Rough" for his aggressive approach), and he starts setting goalkeeping records before his chronic gambling problem lands him in trouble with some local thugs. You probably won't be surprised to hear that the film climaxes with the two brothers facing each other in a high-stakes match, which comes down to a last-minute penalty kick.
As a director, Cuarón doesn't do much to freshen up his own hackneyed storytelling on screen. Aside from the interesting decision to focus almost solely on crowd reaction shots rather than showing us the on-pitch action, he generally lets the film drift along in an easygoing, unimaginative fashion. Rudo y Cursi lacks the energetic rambunctiousness that characterised Y tu mamá también, and whereas that film's horny humour was carefully tempered by an increasing emotional depth, the darker elements of this story feel as if they have been clumsily shoehorned into the mix. The one area in which Rudo y Cursi doesn't suffer from comparison with Alfonso Cuarón's film is in the level of performance offered by the two stars. They both go for broad characterisations – Bernal as a naïve playboy, Luna as a tightly wound hothead – and they are both charming and often very funny. Given the amount of talent contributing to Rudo y Cursi, one might have expected a better showcase for their considerable abilities.
Saturday, July 04, 2009
Public Enemies is not the kind of major American film one expects to find in the middle of the annual blockbuster season, but in a summer as starved of imagination, artistry and humanity as 2009 has been so far, thank God for such anomalies. Whereas most of the films currently gracing the multiplexes are effects-driven fantasies, films made by committee and designed to dazzle the eyes rather than stir the intellect, Public Enemies is a picture borne of a singular artistic vision, a daring attempt to reinvigorate a musty genre with a contemporary aesthetic, a film made for adults. The story of John Dillinger could have been written specifically for Michael Mann, it is so in tune with the themes he has explored through his career, and it lends itself so perfectly to the dynamic visuals and explosive action that have become his hallmark.
As played by Johnny Depp, Dillinger is very much a Mann's man. The heroes and villains in this director's films tend to be taciturn, serious characters, driven by a personal code of honour and loyalty, and they are very, very good at what they do. Mann opens his film with an example of Dillinger at work, as he stages a daring jailbreak, which is superbly filmed by Dante Spinotti in a fluid, energetic fashion. Spinotti is working with Mann for the fifth time here, but none of their previous collaborations have looked anything like this. Having eschewed the fastidiously composed and stylised approach of his earlier films, Mann now seems to be using each new picture to experiment with digital cameras, and to push the boundaries of what they can do. In Collateral and Miami Vice, Dion Beebe used them to create a vivid, heightened reality; Spinotti uses them to strip away any sense of filmic artifice from the Dillinger story, and to present it with stunning immediacy. We feel like we are right there alongside the characters, getting close enough to see the pores on the actors' faces, close enough to feel the bullets hitting their targets, although this style does take some getting used to. We are accustomed to period movies being artfully constructed and lusciously lit, and Mann's restless camerawork goes against all of that, but it offers a strikingly authentic and immersive cinematic experience nonetheless.
The script, too, is distinctively different, even if it essentially boils down to an old-fashioned cops and robbers story in the end. Mann and his screenwriters have shaped Bryan Burrough's non-fiction book into a pared-down narrative, which is light on exposition and psychological profiling, and heavy on incident. The film cuts back-and-forth between Dillinger – robbing banks, taunting the police and romancing Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) – and the nascent FBI, led by J Edgar Hoover (a brilliant, almost unrecognisable Billy Crudup) and William Purvis (Christian Bale), who spend much of the film chasing shadows. However, the film never really develops into the kind of cat-and-mouse game we might expect, and it doesn't offer the same kind of head-to-head confrontation that Mann gave us in Heat, partly because Purvis isn't a strong enough character to stand up against Depp's Dillinger. Bale plays him in an unwaveringly dour fashion, and he comes across as an almost robotic pursuer.
In contrast, Depp is mesmerising. It doesn't hurt that he resembles a 30's movie star anyway, absurdly handsome and charismatic, and he invests Dillinger with the charm and self-assurance that allowed him to manipulate his public persona, turning himself into something of a hero for Depression-era Americans. He uses this same magnetism to hook Billie, practically ordering her to be his girl, and sweeping her off her feet with promises of a glorious new life together. But while Billie fears for his future, Dillinger exists completely in the moment: "We're having too good a time today," he says, "we're not even thinking about tomorrow." Depp's performance, all cockiness and smirking satisfaction in the early stages, reveals additional layers as the picture progresses, and he finds avenues being closed off all around him. With the FBI closing in and with his former accomplices turning their backs on him, he begins making desperate choices, working with the psychotic Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), and we can feel the clock ticking towards his death.
Marion Cotillard deserves enormous credit for her work here as well. She pretty much has sole responsibility for the film's emotional weight, and she carries it off effortlessly. It's no secret that Mann is much more interested in his male protagonists than his female ones, and she does a remarkable job in adding depth to a character who, as written, has little to offer. She's at the centre of a brutal interrogation in the film – one of two deeply unsettling sequences – and one of the most fascinating aspects of Public Enemies is Mann's exploration of the methods used by the FBI to catch Dillinger. We see them using the then-new techniques of wiretapping, stakeouts and coordinating national investigations, before Hoover orders Purvis to "Take the white gloves off," leading to the violent questioning that Billie is subjected to. Throughout Public Enemies, the violence is shot with the emphasis on impact and realism, but Mann asks us to feel the moral weight of these actions too. There's a recurring motif throughout the film of looking into a person's eyes as their life ebbs away, and in one memorable shot, we see Baby Face Nelson's last breath crystallising in the night air.
I think that's why Michael Mann's films resonate with me like few others do, the attention paid to details like that, the kind that stick in your mind and encourage you to come back to the film once more. As ever, he proves his absolute mastery of action sequences here – one shootout at a secluded forest lodge, the night illuminated by muzzle flashes, is breathtaking – but it is those smaller, quieter moments that really make the film work for me. The surreal interlude when Dillinger wanders through a police station, the flash of defiance in Billie's eyes as she turns on her interrogator, the sly grin on Dillinger's face as his 'Wanted' picture flashes up on a movie screen. Of course, Dillinger's final hours were spent at the movies, watching Manhattan Melodrama, a film in which Clark Gable plays a character inspired by Dillinger, who in fact partly modelled his own persona on gangster pictures – art imitating life imitating art. Even though we know how this story will end, Mann's orchestration of the film's final twenty minutes is incredible, building great tension and drawing a deep sense of pathos from Dillinger's impending doom. Even if Public Enemies' narrative doesn't cohere quite as well as we might have hoped, it offers enough of these sustained passages of pure filmmaking excellence to mark it as the work of a master filmmaker. Public Enemies is a gripping, intelligent, uneven, absorbing, unwieldy and ambitious work, and it deserves to be seen. It doesn't belong in cinemas right now, where it may well be shouted down by the works of such auteurs as Michael Bay and McG, but here it is, so let's embrace it.