Saturday, July 04, 2009

Review - Public Enemies

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.