Directed by Michael Mann
Just as outlaw John Dillinger hides in plain sight throughout much of Public Enemies, so has Michael Mann made something approaching an art film in the guise of a star-struck big-budget summer movie tapping Depression-era chic. There are blazing shootouts, and Christian Bale technically co-stars with Johnny Depp, but Mann's latest mobilization of the Hollywood apparatus is really about a fugitive legend as much as about the legendary fugitive. Long before the final shot is fired at the Biograph Theatre where Manhattan Melodrama plays, Depp's Dillinger becomes more of a Dead Man walking than brash gangster wielding a tommy gun.
Opening with a 1933 prison breakout spare and cluttered by turns, Public Enemies proceeds through Dillinger's bank robberies with other gunslinging all-stars like Baby Face Nelson, shadowed by a resourceful manhunt by FBI mastermind J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and executed on the ground by agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale). Playing to the press, squirming out of police clutches, Dillinger is most focused with coat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) whom he makes his romantic ideal. She sensibly enough is surprised at his openness, then respectful of his tragic impunity; he conveys confidence and zeal, yet with the barest touch of desperation.
Like Mann's last two films, Collateral and Miami Vice, Public Enemies is partly an aggressive experiment in HD-mediated style, to a new purpose. Unlike those films' tube-paint gleam against dazzling canvases, DP Dante Spinotti's era-appropriate shades in the new film are counterpointed by translucent close-ups by day, especially of Depp and company, which give a ghostly aspect where one might expect faded snapshots. And for all the bravura wonkiness of bank interiors and neat rows of desks at a numbers operation (or a courtroom scene featuring The Wire's Brian Gerety doing a perfect reedy-wavering radio voice as Dillinger's attorney), there are also remarkable instances of minimalism: one embrace between Dillinger and Billie occurs in a near-lunar landscape, as does an exterior of the prison in the opening scene.
It's such moments, along with selective sound drop-offs, that led one colleague to dub the film Brechtian, and there's definitely something more to Dillinger's extraordinary anonymous tour through police HQ than mere nose-thumbing. Backgrounded by a whole population of supporting cast, the Depp/Bale face-off remains but a tantalizing concept pitting two modes of masculinity, with Depp a show of soft cool. Bale, stuck once again a la The Dark Knight with referencing torture debates, gets across a do-right brutality, but his rigidity and self-enamored vocal antics pins him as the next Kevin Spacey. As for Depp/Cotillard, it's hard to feel the magic; there's neither a sloppy swaggering desire nor nocturnal cool, though Cotillard looks, suggestively, prettiest in jail. Like all Mann's films, Public Enemies oozes mood, and its sense of suspension in time and myth is wondrous strange.
Opens July 1
Plus: Justin Stewart on Dillinger in the movies.