Friday 29 June 2012


(Michael Mann, 2009) A synopsis makes Public Enemies sound like dozens of other crime movies; it details the efforts of the FBI, and in particular Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale, turning a lead role into an eccentric little character part) to capture celebrated Bank Robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, bringing both his charm and intelligence to the fore) in the American Midwest in the 1930s. At the same time it addresses Dillinger's love for Billie (Marion Cotillard) and touches, with a panoramic view, upon many quirks of American culture and politics in that period. Here is an art film disguised as a Summer blockbuster; an uneven but coldly poetic story of the impossibility of true communication and of outrunning fate dressed up as a '30s gangster picture, all sharp suits and tommy guns. Mann, a genuine visionary, doesn't play with convention, he utterly ignores it, it is an irrelevance. Instead hes after immersion, immediacy, a quicksilver study of the fleeting instant, and he gets that, alright, with his use of digital photography, with his shot-choices and passages of beautifully edited dreamy visual poetry. That DV photography, controversial upon release, is not an issue. Mann is trying to change the way movies look, and yet he is capable of making this a film loaded with amazing tableaux, with breathtaking shots. That those shots are undeniably raw, feel as "real" as fictional feature films ever feel, is a massive part of what makes it all possess such a fresh tone. Mann's style has shifted and loosened in the last few years, with more and more handheld work meaning that his camera is always moving, and much of the beauty lies in this motion, in the fleetingly lovely glories it finds as it glides. That and the fact that there is little or no exposition, that the supporting characters drift in and out without explanation or introduction add to the odd, unique tone. And the fact that the characterisation avoids the usual spoonfeeding beloved of most Hollywood cinema in favour of trusting the audience to find these people themselves. When Dillinger gives Billie a potted summation of his life and likes ("What else do you need to know?"), it is as if Mann is daring the audience to go with him, promising that this film offers more than such reductive dialogue, more than tart, glib "explanations". What it offers is an impressionist trip through a fast and brutal life, with death forever hanging overhead. It is an extended meditation on death, with multiple scenes of one man watching another die. Dillinger and Purvis even discuss it in their brief prison-set exchange. The particulars are undeniably impressive; Dante Spinotti's photography is frequently astounding, Elliot Goldenthal's score mixed superbly with some contemporary standards, and the supporting cast is filled with excellent turns by a variety of great actors, most notably Stephen Graham as Babyface Nelson and Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover. But like all Mann films it is primarily a movie of great moments - like the many action sequences, particularly the nocturnal gun battle at Little Bohemia, the black of night starred with yellow muzzle flashes, the sounds of tommy guns and revolvers thunderous. Or the two sublime scenes of Dillinger in cinemas, watching himself on a wanted poster and in a fictionalised form as played by Clark Gable. Or that perfect ending with Stephen Lang and Marion Cotillard in a small room, when the emotional payload finally hits on three little words: "Bye Bye Blackbird". Or possibly the finest scene of all - Dillinger's sunlit stroll through the "Dillinger Unit" at police headquarters, his glee at pulling it off, at getting away with so much.

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