“I‘m John Dillinger.” Johnny Depp matter-of-factly presents himself to would-be girlfriend Billie Frechette early on in Michael Mann’s new up close biography on the infamous American gangster. Later, he elaborates, “I rob banks. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars. And you.” And there is Public Enemies in a nutshell from a narrative stand point. In fact with its alien cinematography, township-sized supporting cast and restless continuity, this may be one of the great modern audience-unfriendly movies to come along in some time. But, therein lies its strength. Movie audiences are all too familiar with the bio-pic, the historical epic, or the period-piece. Along comes Michael Mann, a pros pro, to goose audiences with a new rebellious aesthetic, and a new way of conveying a story that may take some time getting used to. But likely in 15 (or 5) years from now, it will be looked upon as a pioneering motion picture in both tone and texture.
Lets start at the beginning. There is no beginning. Unlike the glut of superhero pictures and musical biographies out there, there is no ‘young kid has traumatic experience that shapes his life into what he is’ There is no probing into what or who or how John Dillinger became a world-class bank-robber and robin-hood figure, knocking over banks in one minute forty five seconds. Flat. No, Dillinger just is. He clearly is not much deeper than his own live-in-the-moment impulses. This very fact does not make the move lack humanity or act as a shallow look on a mythic American celebrity, but rather makes this story so contemporary. We want things and we want it now. We are enticed with expensive yet disposable toys and trinkets and privilege, even if the economy (albeit nowhere near as bad as the 1930s of Dillinger’s day) is bad. We have credit; Dillinger had a Tommy Guns and network of accomplices (including Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd ) and a skill-set for planning that went way above the capacity of the law in his day. Chicago in the summer. Florida and Cuba in the winter. Expensive sunglasses and the ability to work where-ever he wanted to. Those who say Public Enemies has no point of modern resonance, or connection to humanity in all the fractured narrative, hand-held cinematography and sea of gangsters and G-men, may want to look again. Much like the crazy impulsive, yet disciplined life he lived, the film is wild, uncertain and rigorous in form. The characters are made strangely mythic in Mann’s attempt to de-mythologize them. John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis (a happily restrained Christian Bale) are not showy guys, they do what they do and let their actions and decisions speak to a wider audience. You don’t have to dig too far into these portrayals of professionals doing what they do professionally to understand that this is Michael Mann’s sandbox and he makes a mighty fine castle in the center here.
To (clumsily) stretch out a cumbersome metaphor, the princess in the castle, Dillinger’s object of affection Billie Frechette is a kept woman, pampered and imprisoned by her lover’s lifestyle. Marion Cotillard darn well steals every scene she is in. The rest of the picture may be pushing into uncharted visual and narrative territory but the love story at the center of Public Enemies is as old-school Hollywood in tone as I have seen in some time. There is restless energy, and scrappy vulnerability all conveyed in Cotillard’s glances and body language. She may not be the strongest of characters in the script (everyone is a pale second to Dillinger in that regard), but much like Marisa Tomei in her last few films, she pulls out a knock-out performance by pure act of will. And makes it seem like an effortless thing to do. There seems to be a wise acknowledgment by the director in this by giving her performance the focus of the final scene in the film. Likewise, a scene involving interrogation by the G-men thugs goes further to underline Cotillard’s unvarnished star power. The scene is violent, ugly and truly encaptivating. (As a bonus, it has the side effect of giving added dimension to Agent Melvin Purvis who is seen as rather stuffy, yet comes out as the consummate professional.)
As a history lesson, I do not think the film can be taken in on a single sitting (giving the picture an unusual connection to another recently great biopic, Steven Soderberg’s more analytical Che or Andrew Dominik’s lush The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). It is likely that a boatload of minutae in the book the screenplay was based on (Bryan Burrough’s “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34″) is merely skimmed over in the film. But the fairly lengthy runtime of 2 hours 23 minutes, I believe, was indeed necessary for tone. The lifestyle and pressures that wash effortlessly off of Dillinger’s conscience as well as the multitude of people he came in contact over his capers require such length. The film deserves its long talking hide-outs to accompany the rat-a-tat-tat bank robberies and muzzle-flash gunfight getaways. The film perfectly conveys the feeling and rush (and the joys taken from this), but it also also about the somewhat shallow emptiness that inevitably tags along. Many bodies are left in the wake of Dillinger. And many a ‘square’ government career is made though politicking on his infamy. I would have liked to see more of J. Edgar Hoover here. Was that Billy Crud-up? You could have fooled me as he is about as far from “A Golden God” or “Blue Superbeing” as possible. Hoover is a man who knows his own media power and that a ‘beaucratic dictatorship’ was the wave of the future. So, in light of J. Edgar’s posturing in political circles, it falls to Melvin Purvis and his imported Arizona professionals to do the real work. Stephen Lang plays Charles Winstead who gets a few knock-out lines on the simplest of common sense. Would Dillinger see a Shirley Temple film or the Clark Gable tough guy flick? Similar to an anonymous sharp shooters’ dramatic line of dialogue in Miami Vice about what is going to happen she shoots her target (the other half of the conversation) in the head, or Mark Ruffalo’s competent if behind-the-curve cop in Collateral, or the Alabama lawyer in The Insider (see here), Michael Mann is not afraid of giving a big “Star”-line or scene to a supporting character. Less bombast for the hero, more veracity for the film. That is the sort of smart filmmaking that is woven throughout Public Enemies as much as it is throughout Mann’s other films. The directors penchant for complex action set-pieces is also on display in fine form. Several jail-breaks, bank robberies and the like are executed with flair and a real sense of geography. The signature set-piece being a nocturnal assault by the law on the forest cabin housing John Dillinger, Baby-face Nelson and others. Done in practically zero-light, outdoors on location with only the muzzle-flashes to illuminate things, it is a doozy that is both heightened with HD grain and shaky camerawork and also startlingly immediate.
There is an undercurrent of sexy-cool in the picture even as it resists the notion of iconography. Dillinger is portrayed as a man with no long term plans, living life high on the hog, devil-be-damned. In other words a film made in and for contemporary times. In this age of the meaningless and glossy blockbuster, the uncomfortable cinematography and its ‘audience unfriendly’ structure is a major strength in Public Enemies. It provides a way of refracting crime/celebrity/road-trip/romance from Bonnie & Clyde to Badlands to Natural Born Killers) in an exciting and unique way.