Johnny Depp plays the outlaw John Dillinger in “Public Enemies.”
July 1, 2009
Seduction by Machine Gun
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By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: July 1, 2009
Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” is a grave and beautiful work of art. Shot in high-definition digital by a filmmaker who’s helping change the way movies look, it revisits with meticulous detail and convulsions of violence a short, frantic period in the life and bank-robbing times of John Dillinger, an Indiana farm boy turned Depression outlaw, played by a low-voltage Johnny Depp. Much of what makes the movie pleasurable is the vigor with which it restages our familiar romance with period criminals, a perennial affair. But what also makes it more than the sum of its spectacular shootouts is the ambivalence about this romance that seeps into the filmmaking, steadily darkening the skies and draining the story of easy thrills.
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The thrills are certainly there in the sensationally choreographed prison break that opens the movie under a bright blue Midwestern sky that stretches across the wide screen like a cathedral ceiling. Dappled by fluffy white clouds, it is the kind of sky that tends to show up as a backdrop in paintings of the Madonna and Child, but here offers a sharp contrast to the long-distance image of Dillinger and his friend Red (Jason Clarke), quickly striding toward an enormous, looming prison. Mr. Mann goes in closer once the men enter the prison, where they help disarm the guards, and he pulls back again for the long view as Dillinger fires on the prison with a machine gun while the escapees make a run for the getaway car.
By force of Hollywood habit, you might expect that this vision of the suddenly lone gunman would serve as a prelude to another exciting joy ride about living fast and dying young. Instead it’s followed by a striking short scene of a wounded escapee being dragged alongside the speeding car while Dillinger and another man struggle to pull him up. In the most startling shot, Mr. Mann places the camera right next to the fallen man, pointing it up at Dillinger’s dark, ominous figure as he almost blots out that blue sky. Dillinger holds on until the man’s grip wilts, the dead body slipping away in one direction as the car races off in the other. Laying the blame elsewhere, he next tosses another man out of the moving car.
This, then, is Mr. Mann’s Dillinger: brave enough to stand his ground, loyal, ruthless. There’s a hint of the demonic in this portrait, particularly when the outlaw is gliding through a bank, his long, dark coat fanning around him and a tommy gun in one hand. This is the stuff of legends, of shoot-’em-ups and matinee gangsters with jaunty smiles. Mr. Mann loves this apparition of calculated bravura and initially he frames the first few heists as seamlessly choreographed set pieces. During the first robbery he shows Dillinger and two accomplices from high overhead, the camera peering straight down as the men fan across a black-and-white bank floor like MGM dancers. When Dillinger leaps across a railing, he soars.
It’s a seductive moment — the bad man seems to be defying gravity, not just the law — and much like the other action scenes, it gives the movie a jolt. It also, perhaps in homage, mirrors a similar shot of the escaping serial killer in David Fincher’s “Seven.” Like Mr. Fincher, Mr. Mann makes big-budget art movies that because of their complex pleasures and ambiguities, don’t always hit the box office sweet spot (“Seven” and “Collateral,” Mr. Mann’s movie with Tom Cruise, being exceptions). Despite Mr. Mann’s mainstream bona fides, notably with the 1980s hit TV show “Miami Vice,” and preference for muscular cinematic genres, there’s something resolutely noncommercial about his movies. Among other things, they’re deeply serious (at times to the edge of parody), which is why they rarely pop.
And “Public Enemies” is nothing if not serious, a vividly realistic if fictionalized portrait of a country deep in depression and jumping with bad men. The story centers on two dramatic antagonists, Dillinger and Melvin Purvis (a remote Christian Bale), the F.B.I. agent who doggedly, if often ineptly, led the hunt for America’s most wanted. At first the bureau’s young chief, J. Edgar Hoover (a terrific Billy Crudup, his neck thickened and delivery clipped), ignored Dillinger, deeming him a state problem. Hoover would have been spared embarrassment if the outlaw had remained out of federal jurisdiction because, when the chase was on, it was with agents who didn’t know how to conduct a stakeout or properly fire their guns.
Like Dillinger, Hoover cultivated a public profile that looked good on paper and later up on the screen. They had a lot of competition. Bonnie and Clyde were running wild, as were Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and other hoods with marquee-ready stories, some of whom make appearances here. Banks made for easy targets, logistically and otherwise, and, as the writer Bryan Burrough points out in a book about America’s inaugural war on crime, these outlaws took advantage of the public’s hatred of those recently failed institutions. Dillinger raided bank vaults and staged prison breaks to increasing approval. He shot one man to death, though didn’t always own up to the killing. It was bad for his image.
He became another kind of America’s most wanted: a star. “Get me the money, Honey,” he instructed one female teller with his crooked smile. The press raised his profile with screaming headlines, and the comic Will Rogers joked about the ineptitude of the authorities. (They were going to shoot Dillinger, Rogers joked, but “another bunch of folks came out ahead; so they shot them instead.”) Mr. Mann, working with incidents drawn from Mr. Burrough’s “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the F.B.I., 1933-34,” underscores the celebrity angle. But that’s only part of the big picture sketched out in his ambitious screenplay, written with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, which also makes room for a love story amid the blazing guns and tabloid glory.
The relationship between Dillinger and a hatcheck girl named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard, holding her own in this man’s world) eats up considerable time, sometimes winningly, though both actors are better when they’re apart. When not in pirate drag, Mr. Depp can be a recessive, even inscrutable screen presence, which is crucial to his strengths and performative limits. He’s a cool cat, to be sure: veiled and often most memorable when he’s staring into space while the camera soaks in his subdued but potent physical charms. He might have made a great silent star, as earlier roles suggest. Part of his initial appeal was that he seemed almost Garboesque in a movie world that increasingly makes no room for sacred idols.
Mr. Depp looks good as Dillinger — few contemporary actors can wear a fedora as persuasively — but the performance sneaks up on you, inching into your system scene by scene. The same holds true of “Public Enemies,” which looks and plays like no other American gangster film I can think of and very much like a Michael Mann movie, with its emphasis on men at work, its darkly moody passages, eruptions of violence and pictorial beauty. Mr. Mann’s digital manipulations, in particular, which encompass almost pure abstraction and interludes of hyper-realism, is worthy of longer exegesis, one that explores how this still-unfamiliar format is changing the movies: it allows, among other things, filmmakers to capture the eerie brightness of nighttime as never before.
“Public Enemies” doesn’t look like the usual gangster picture, not only because it’s been shot in digital, but also because Mr. Mann is searching for a new kind of gangster story to fit the times, one that makes room for greater ambivalence, and lawmen and outlaws who are closer to one another in temperament and deed. If he doesn’t fully succeed, it’s because he knows that the gangster’s rakish smile is at once a fiction of cinema and one of its great, irresistible lies. During the big finish, Dillinger grins wryly at a black-and-white Hollywood picture with Clark Gable as the kind of gangster who could only have been invented by the movies, a gangster who is as false as the bullets that finally stopped Dillinger were real.
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