The following review was originally published by Unbound Culture in Summer 2009.
Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s a period film set in the 1930s, but it doesn’t look like one. It’s also a gangster film, but it doesn’t play like one. So what is it?
Mann chose to shoot Public Enemies in high definition digital. The effect is a bit jarring at first—almost like looking at a Chuck Close portrait for the first time. Everything appears a little too real. In a contemporary setting, this would be fine, but none of us is accustomed to seeing a period film—costumes and all—with such crisp clarity. Amazingly, though, it works. This is principally due to cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s camera wizardry—a marvel of dizzying, highly detailed perfection. The heavily researched set designs and on-site locations (including Chicago and other parts of the Midwest) look fantastic. And the actors’ faces become worlds unto themselves.
Public Enemies tells the story of John Dillinger. For those of you who don’t know, Dillinger was one of the most wanted men in America at the time of his death in 1934. The newly formed FBI had branded the bank robber/folk hero one of its infamous “public enemies” (hence, the title). In the film, Dillinger is played by Johnny Depp. Perhaps “underplayed” is a better word. And the choice works. For those expecting to see Jack Sparrow firing a Tommy gun with unabashed glee, this isn’t your movie. Depp is cool, confident, and driven. But hardly an emotion can be found.
Indeed, some will complain that there is no psychological depth to the character. Why? Perhaps they are looking for that one thing that will explain away Dillinger’s behavior—something from his past that will shed light on the present. If such and such a thing happened to him when he was a child, we could view it as a root cause for the way he is now. But this movie requires a different approach. Rather than looking to psychology for the cause of Dillinger’s behavior, we should look to his behavior as a reflection of his psyche.
So what do we know about Depp’s Dillinger? When asked what he wants out of life, he answers: “Everything.” When asked where he’s going, he responds: “Anywhere.” Such are the abstractions that occupy his mind. Specificity frightens him. Like a child, he moves through life quickly and aimlessly, avoiding definite plans and long term goals whenever possible. He is a person composed of kinetic energy. Like a shark, he must keep moving at all times. Thus, he has no time to adapt to society. Toward the end of the film, even the criminal world doesn’t want anything to do with him. They’ve begun many complex coast-to-coast operations. They don’t need a wild man like Dillinger drawing unnecessary heat.
Dillinger’s lifestyle also leaves him little time for self-reflection. In a key scene, FBI agent Melvin Purvis, played with calm intensity by Christian Bale, asks: “What keeps you up nights, Mr. Dillinger?” Dillinger responds: “Coffee.”
Interestingly, the film’s narrative structure mirrors Dillinger’s kinetic drive and his inability to sit still for too long. He lives in the moment—in action. So the action scenes are where we see him shine. And who better at filming action scenes than Michael Mann? With the help of editors Jeffrey Ford and Paul Rubell, he carries us through the bank robberies, jail breaks, car chases, and shootouts with an uncanny sense of pacing. We’re at all times moving forward.
However, as in other Mann films, these adrenaline rushes are punctuated by scenes of moody quietude. The audience, like Dillinger, is given a chance to reflect, but anxiety soon sets in. The best example is a scene at a red light. Knowing people are watching him, Dillinger waits it out. We feel his impatience. We, too, just can’t sit still. These are the types of scenes where Elliot Goldenthal’s provocative score stands out the most, as it perfectly accentuates the existential dread with its low, weighty tones.
For all its greatness, though, Public Enemies does have its faults. One is the dialogue. As in some other Mann films (most notably Miami Vice) the dialogue is more of a nuisance than anything else. For example, Melvin Purvis speaks at all times like an FBI agent—coldly and formally. It’s only when he’s not speaking do we get glimpses into who he really is. His blank, intense stares certainly say more and speak louder than any of his words. Mann has always been more of a visual director, relying on cinematography and editing to tell the story. Perhaps he would have been more appreciated in the silent era—an era he clearly draws from frequently. (You’ll see the influence in some of this film’s more shadowy, noir-inspired sequences.)
The film’s other major fault is in the character of Billie Frechette, Dillinger’s love interest. Like the male characters in the film, we know little about her. Though I think this works for the other characters, I can’t help thinking that Frechette could have been developed as an interesting counterpoint to Depp’s Dillinger. The reason I think this is actress Marion Cotillard. So good in La Vie en Rose—so primal, so passionate—just think what she could have done with this role had the filmmakers given her more to work with. But such a fate befalls many of the actresses in Mann’s pictures. His films are about the trappings of the male psyche, so this is no surprise. Women become objects by which the men define themselves. They become reflections of male power. So when a man loses his woman, he becomes vulnerable. This is no different in Public Enemies. After Dillinger loses Frechette, he walks right into the hornets nest—the Chicago Police Department’s Dillinger investigation unit. Why? To prove to himself that he can—that he still has some power over his life and environment.
The scene is notable as one of only a few instances where Dillinger begins to see his life and not run from it. Here, it’s in the police reports and crime scene photographs. In an unexpected Shakespearean moment, Dillinger even stares eerily at a picture of himself. Another inspired scene where we see some self-recognition in Dillinger’s eyes is as he sits in a theater watching the gangster movie Manhattan Melodrama. “The play’s the thing.”
So how does Public Enemies hold up? Compared to other Mann films, it might not be as epic as Heat or as polished as The Insider, but it’s still better than offerings like Ali and Miami Vice. As a gangster thriller, its tragic structure has a lot in common with early movies like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. But it’s still very different from those classic works. Its closest relative might be Bonnie and Clyde. Both films tell tales of 1930s bank robbers, and both do so in ways audiences haven’t seen before. Public Enemies might not be as revolutionary as Arthur Penn’s masterpiece, but it’s still going to have quite an impact when all is said and done.
It’s one hell of a movie. What Mann has done is forgo the rules of period films, the rules of the gangster genre, and any other rules he has no use for in order to create a new cinematic form. This is a Michael Mann picture, and he has never been more confident and graceful with his signature style.