If you read my post from yesterday, you will find a guy who couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of a Michael Mann-directed portrait of 30s outlaw John Dilinger with Johnny Depp in the lead role and Christian Bale as the lawman Melvin Purvis chasing him down with all guns blazing.
With expectations as high as mine, it’s hard to imagine any film fulfilling all of them. When considering the finished product, I have to say they produced a solid, action-packed crime drama with loads of good character stuff and a masterful visual style. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. I’m still sifting through a lot of my thoughts on the film, so a straightforward review might not be as effective as a simple list of where Mann and company hit and where they, sadly, managed to miss. So I’ll give you a blow-by-blow address of the things that worked in Public Enemies and the things that, to my surprise, needed work. And away we go:
Topic 1: Johnny Depp and the handling of Dilinger’s character
You will seldom find a bigger Johnny Depp fan than me, and after seeing this film, my opinion of the man remains untarnished. His performance as Dilinger is everything that Mann needed as an anchor for the film. Depp refuses to romanticize the character. He isn’t overly suave or charming, but he’s a simple country boy who enjoys the fast life and understands that every moment could be his last. There also isn’t a hint of irony to the character. Depp has surrendered to his own flights of creative fancy in the past, which is largely what we love him for, but here he makes the brave choice to play the character as close to the ground as possible. It would have been easy play Dilinger as charming or seductive, but Depp plays him as direct with a dead ahead focus on what he wants in the moment. He doesn’t emerge with some half-formed caricature there for our amusement, but with a full blooded human being trying to outrun his own mortality.
And exploring the theme of mortality is where Mann and his screenwriters, Ronan Bennet and Anne Biderman, make their mark with the character. I expected them to present Dilinger as a high-handed existentialist, providing plenty of commentary on his life philosophy about the value of living in the moment. They play it real instead, giving us a man who, as he says, enjoys today so much that he isn’t thinking about tomorrow. They also understand the thrill that character takes in audacious moves like going out in public when there is an all points bulletin out on him, or walking into a police station with only a pair of sunglasses and a thin mustache to disguise him. The high is in the risk. All of the character’s quirks, needs and insecurities feel completely authentic, and we care deeply when Dilinger walks into a trap at the Biograph Theater that will cost him his life at the end of the film.
Topic 2: The Look
I extolled Mann’s decision to shoot the film in High Definition as something that would give us a representation of the 1930s that we had never seen before. I was right. I’ve never seen the period look like this. It feels lived in, dark, unforgiving. There is an early scene where Dilinger and his gang regroup at a farmhouse that is tattered and broken with holes in the walls and plaster falling from the ceiling. Using the High Def format, Mann makes this farmhouse seem even more hopeless. There is a realism inherent in Mann’s use of the technique that adds believability to the film’s landscape, believability you don’t always achieve through the sleek, polished look of 35 mm film.
Topic 3: The Action
I never thought Mann would top the bank robbery sequence in Heat, but some of the action sequences in Public Enemies sit nicely alongside that great shootout. The gunfight at the Little Bohemian Lodge, where Purvis and his team of G-Men close in on wounded Dilinger and his beleaguered gang after a robbery gone awry, is one such sequence. Both sides fire with reckless abandon with one another, stopped only by the need to feverishly load another clip and dispose of it just as quickly. Purvis doesn’t have a sizeable enough force to fully corner Dilinger, but he can’t risk losing him again. Once the two sides lay into each other, Mann captures the mindless energy of battle, with Purvis’s men overcome by the need to capture and Dilinger’s the need to escape. Action sequences are mostly used as eye candy, but seldom are they filtered through the complexities of character. Mann finds that here.
Topic 1: Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis
Let me state at the outset that there is nothing wrong with Bale’s performance, but casting him in this role feels strange. When I saw that he was starring opposite Depp, I expected something on the level of American Gangster with both actors sharing equal screen time and bearing equal weight in the story. Not the case at all with this film. Purvis is a completely supporting role, and the filmmakers aren’t interested in supplying him with any meaningful backstory except for his killing of Pretty Boy Floyd in his first scene, which they use simply to establish him as a formidable adversary for Dilinger. Bale is obviously a movie star whose stature complements a more sizeable, developed role, but I admire his decision to play a purely supporting part. That aside, I can’t say I cared much about Purvis. He does what the adversary is supposed to do and is completely dedicated to his task of tracking Dilinger down. I’m not saying they should have supplied him with personal backstory for the sake of backstory, but when a title card at the end of the film tells us that Purvis quit the FBI and took his own life in 1960, we don’t know why and the filmmakers haven’t prepared us for this information.
A good love story is often the key to giving a film like this a heart, but here it largely feels like it is there because it needs to be there. Cotillard’s character, Billy Frechette, is swept off her feet by Dilinger and they vow to make a life together. But some of their dialogue feels punched in as if the filmmakers are trying to cram a lot into only a few scenes because they know the story of Dilinger’s eventual capture and incarceration needs to get going. One line made me cringe in particular: when Dilinger and Frechette are sitting beside a racetrack and she tells him “sooner or later you’re gonna go down and don’t want to be around to see that happen.” A standard line like this belongs in another movie; I would have been happier if the sentiment would have gone unvoiced. You know that this discontent exists without Mann hitting it over the head. Subtlety should have won out.
Topic 3: The Last Scene (Spoiler Warning)
Very few things bother me more than a good movie that is marred by an unnecessary card being played at the very end of a film, and Public Enemies has one of the worst examples. Mann has given us a conclusive ending with Dilinger’s death outside the Biograph theater. There is really no need to go back to Frechette at the end. But he does, and supplies us with a sentimental piece of garbage that ends the film on precisely the wrong note.
Well, there are some of my very stream-of-consciousness observations about the highs and lows of Public Enemies. The film is a pro-job, it just needed some work.