Public Enemies is one extremely strange bird of a film. One that I’ll need to watch at least two more times before I can formulate the penultimate decision. The way the story typically goes, a film starts off great, maintains its stronghold for about an hour, and then, as if by some evil magnetic force that resides in celluloid, teeters off into disappointment as the botched final act pokes its ugly head from under the two-thirds-sized costume. Public Enemies, however, is the exact opposite. For it’s frustrating first 40 minutes, the film, directed by Michael Mann, misses the bullseye repeatedly; somewhere near the end of the second act, though, Public Enemies hits its stride and achieves a meditative hypnosis that carries over into a magnificent finale.
Like I said, quite the strange cinematic bird. And the surface hasn’t even been cracked yet. [Continued after the jump]
Telling the story of legendary bank robber John Dillinger (played with the expected greatness by Johnny Depp), Mann’s striking crime drama has no shortage of technical wizardry. Mann opted to shoot the film with a handheld digital-HD camera, a slick and ballsy move that gives Public Enemies a real “live in the moment” feel; your eyes are frequently on the same level as the on-screen characters’, Mann’s camera swooping and spinning with a whiplash-nearing verve. It’s an intriguing choice for a 1930s period picture, jarring in the sense that very few of us were actually there in the ’30s and know what it was like—–so how the hell can we know if this digi-HD covering is heroic or just plain suspect?
Any head-scratching is forgotten and looked past whenever Dillinger and his cohorts engage in some tommy-gun shootouts, though, and that’s where Mann proves himself to be the perfect directorial choice for this material. The guy has a creative hard-on for multiple character violence, primarily with automatic weapons involved; just watch Heat, or choice moments in Collateral. The scattered outbursts of gunfire in Public Enemies are all exhilirating. Mann’s handheld picture-shooter is so in-the-moment that you’re apt to start ducking whenever somebody’s gun goes off. No actual bullets are coming at you, so breathe easy.
Of all the action sequences, the biggest dazzler is a nighttime siege of Dillinger’s wooded hideout, led by task force head Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, effective despite playing the same stone-faced tough that he’s done recently in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation, only this time his voice doesn’t sound it’s being spoken through a meat grinder). Dillinger and a few of henchmen have just tag-teamed with insane criminal Baby Face Nelson (Snatch’s Stephen Graham, convincingly manic and slithery here), but their efforts were sloppy and financially-unfulfilling. So, Dillinger is none too happy with Sir Baby Face. Matters get even more complicated once Purvis and his squad sneak attack their pseudo-fortress, leading to a nearly-15-or-maybe-even-more minute thunderstorm of bullets, bodies, car crashes, and utter anarchy. All tightly shot and Mann-handled, a breathtaking and lung-clenching action extravaganza.
Also precisely the moment when I realized that I was falling into passionate feeling for Public Enemies, losing the infuriating sensation of indifference that had been clouding my entertainment value for far too long. Up until that point, the film wasn’t connecting with me emotionally, at least not enough. A bit too distant for its own good, more concerned with showing events take place rather than tucking the audience deeper into the subtext, beneath the story’s skin, into the blood stream. The actors aren’t too blame, at all—–Depp plays Dillinger with a seemingly-effortless zen, prone to sudden bursts of menace, but always balanced by the intense love he feels for his main squeeze, Billie Frenchette (given strong emotion and depth by Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard, in a somewhat underused but still large-in-importance-and-power performance). What’s so odd is that it’s a bit of a mystery, who to blame for the film’s early lack of a tangible heart. The script, perhaps? Or Mann’s publicly-understood preference for muscle or sensitivity in his films.
The first section of Public Enemies is equivalent to watching a video in a grammar school’s History classroom. Everything looks authentically like the 1930s, and the pace seems on point. But you’re just sitting there, watching, entertained without any inner relation to what’s being screened before you. At least that was the case on my side of the screen.
By the film’s end, though, that judgment flip-flopped harder than the old John-Kerry-targeting George “Dubya” Bush. Random dusty CNN reference for that ass. Largely noise-free, devoid of dialogue, the last 20 minutes of Public Enemies enter a slightly art-house territory, unexpectedly and awesomely. The quiet storm begins with a most likely sensationalized/fictionalized scene that shows Dillinger walking through the police precinct specially designated to hunt him down, looking at all the case photos, even asking the cops on duty for the score of the Chicago Cubs ballgame, without being noticed. Far-fetched, if you ask me; clearly inspired by the infamous tale of Dillinger taking his girl to a world’s fair once, in broad daylight while a fugitive-at-large, and having a cop take his picture. Even though the precinct scene is probably bullshit, it’s still gripping. Slowing the motion down to a near catatonic state, haunting strings in the soundtrack, as we watch Dillinger survey the damage that he’s caused with a mixture of somberness and pride.
Leading to the film’s inevitable resolution that’s spoiler-free (just Google the guy’s history; it’s no secret that Depp is going to be gunned down here). If you’re pissed that I just ruined the movie’s ending, you’re really going to hate me for spilling these beans—–the ship sinks at the end of Titanic. A resolution that’s about as powerful as a lead-character-death-scene can be, staged by Mann in a weird, fascinating and dreamlike trance. Dillinger was killed by the fuzz outside of a movie theater, on a crowded city street. He’d just watched a Clark Gable-starring gangster flick called Manhattan Melodrama, a film that closely mirrors his own life—-charismatic and likeable criminal on the run, has to part ways with his girl. Watching Depp as he takes in Manhattan Melodrama‘s expertly chosen scene is like seeing an epiphany of infinite sadness; he, as Dillinger, comes to terms with the pain in his insane life, right before our eyes. Which gives his impending demise that much more weight, an obesity that Mann wraps in his hands and squeezes every emotion out of in a slo-mo, man’s-eye-view execution.
You may have noticed that I’ve spoken little of Depp’s fine work here, but that was by design. As I see it, Public Enemies is more than just a wonderful leading man’s time to shine; it’s a brain-rattling meditation on violence and doom that happens to include great front-seat (Mann) and shotgun (Depp) drivers.
Public Enemies isn’t the Best Picture caliber experience that the cast and material would lead you to expect, but it’s undoubtedly a can’t-miss, and a must-see-more-than-once.