Thursday, July 2, 2009

Public Enemies (***1/2)

Directed by Michael Mann


Public Enemies may be one of the most revolutionary gangster films ever made. Or it may not be. I don't think the film, or its filmmakers, care either way. Michael Mann, the best stylist behind the camera, continues to work his magic with his latest film; something a little more modest in terms of thematic ideals, but overtly ambitious in terms of its visuals. One of the first great films of 2009, Public Enemies decidedly sucks in its audience with its suave abrasiveness and melts you away with its stunning beauty.

John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) robs banks--very matter-of-factually. He has the supreme confidence that any criminal of his stature should possess; by which I mean, he knows he will never get caught, because those who do get caught aren't nearly as organized as he is. Along with his partner 'Red' Hamilton (Jason Clarke), Dillinger famously weaves himself in and out of banks, sometimes in less than two minutes. The newspapers of the early years of the Great Depression frequently had his picture on the cover, and he developed quite a celebrity.

The public created a Robin Hood mystique about him, since he infamously would not take the money of innocent bystanders, just the bank's cash (but who's money was in the bank? the public didn't care much for that question). Dillinger very much relished the fame, and hubris could be seen as one of his major flaws--the other being overbearing loyalty. When he meets a French coat check girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), his infatuation becomes manic, and he swears to always take care of her no matter what.

With his girl, his gang, and his money, Dillinger had it all in the early '30s, and his seemingly unstoppable operation infurated the Washington beauricrats, particularly FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Hoover, always the oppotunist, creates a specific task force to take down Dillinger, and he appoints good ol' boy Melvin Pervis (Christian Bale) to head the man-hunt. An intense search, which leads up to an inevitable end at the Biograph, pulsates with tension and energy in a way that only Michael Mann can do it.

The anticipation for this film has been enormous, many presuming that this may be Michael Mann's home run film. I don't think this film possesses the spectacular blend of cinematic characterization and watershed filmmaking the way films like Heat or Collateral did. All that said, Public Enemies is certainly Mann's most ambitious endeavor: a period piece with cold distance from its atmosphere that nonetheless contains an attention to detail that never allows you to deny its authenticity.

In a way that may put off many theatrical purists, Mann tells the classic gangster story differently from the way anybody has ever done it before. He doesn't bother diving into the psychology of Dillinger. At one moment, Dillinger spills out his life story to Billie in about a minute, and caps it off by asking her, "What else do you need to know?". As an audience, it is occasionally frustrating that Mann points this question directly at us, and leaves us in the cold, never truly letting us into the lives, but just allowing the actions to speak for themselves.

When Martin Scorsese made Goodfellas in 1990, he transformed the gangster genre by incorporating a breezy editing style and a comfortable window into the crime world that was never allowed during the crime pictures of the Production Code. Public Enemies is attempting a similar transformation, only this time, he's going in the opposite direction. Dillinger and Pervis do the things that they do because that is their jobs, and much in the fashion of Mann's film Heat, the film illustrates how neither would exist without the other. There is no such thing as good if there is no such thing as evil.

Despite the lack of characterization, the performances certainly are not mediocre. Depp, a certified movie star, portrays Dillinger appropriately, allowing the nonchalance and gregariousness shine through the soft-hearted man inside. Bale plays Pervis with a tortured conservatism. With a character with such a one-track mind as Pervis, it's hard to portray the damage inside, but Bale's talent is good enough to make him amiable. As Dillinger's loyal girl, the stunning Cotillard portrays Billie with much grace and assertiveness.

I wouldn't call this Michael Mann's home run. It is certainly an astounding piece of filmmaking, possessing enough of Mann's visual motifs that blow you away. With the help of cinematographer Dante Spinotti, he has created the best-looking film of the last few years, and while many will bemoan its chilly persona, it's rather difficult to dismiss its beautiful austerity.

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