“Public Enemies”

Johnny Depp may be the sexiest gangster ever in Michael Mann's stylish, brutal heist movie

Topics: Johnny Depp, Movies,

"Public Enemies"Johnny Depp in "Public Enemies."

Michael Mann is a highly imperfect director, a filmmaker who’s sometimes lauded as great when perhaps he’s really only a smart storyteller with good visual instincts. Then again, in an age when an expensive, miserable mess like the recent “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is viewed by Hollywood as movie gold because of its box-office performance, maybe that’s enough. At the very least, Mann’s movies always feel as if they were made by a human being, and if he’s sometimes guilty of allowing flashy filmmaking style to overwhelm his subject — as in the case of the uneven but intriguing “Ali” — at least his movies always suggest a guiding visual and narrative sensibility. He’s driven by a desire to make stuff look cool, sometimes at the expense of characterization, but he at least understands that his desire isn’t the star of the show. You can’t wish coolness into being; it simply has to happen, as the result of small choices as well as big ones.

Coolness happens, if just barely, in Mann’s “Public Enemies,” which tells the story of how Depression-era celebrity bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) repeatedly and gleefully escaped the clutches of stalwart FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) for some 13 months, until the inevitable end, outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater in 1934. “Public Enemies” is a folk song rendered in visual shards instead of notes, hopscotching through parts of the Midwest as it follows Dillinger’s numerous bank robberies and evasions.

Over and over again, he slips through the clutches of the awestruck Purvis, leaving the venerable G-man stroking his extra-square jaw, which further stokes the rage and determination of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (played, with stylized hamminess, by Billy Crudup). Strict narrative clarity isn’t the picture’s strong suit: Time and again Mann — who co-wrote the script, along with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman, based on a book by Bryan Burrough — fails to introduce characters properly, allowing figures like Stephen Dorff’s Homer Van Meter, an associate of Dillinger’s, to drift on-screen so unceremoniously that we’re not always sure exactly who they are and what they’re doing there. Mann orchestrates several murky chases through wooded areas, in which it’s difficult to tell who’s in pursuit of whom. There’s a massive cast of guys in fedoras in “Public Enemies,” and while it’s easy enough to tell the good guys from the bad (the good guys are the stiff, boring ones), Mann doesn’t bother to make much of a distinction between the members of Dillinger’s various gangs, among them Alvin Karpis (Giovanni Ribisi) and Baby Face Nelson (Steven Graham).

But what the picture lacks in clarity it makes up for in visual vitality. Words aren’t the strong suit of “Public Enemies”; instead, Mann lays out his vocabulary in the tilt of a fedora, or the easygoing manner in which Dillinger tucks a machine gun under his arm, or the way Marion Cotillard, as Dillinger’s lady love Billie Frechette, lounges in a bathtub, extending a glorious naked leg to caress its rim with her foot. The glamour quotient in “Public Enemies” is high, and in a landscape of contemporary movies in which “sophistication” is seemingly a dirty word, it’s a relief to see actors in period dress rather than outlandish Willy Wonka get-ups and superhero costumes.

Even the movie’s violence has a grown-up gloss: Mann doesn’t necessarily glorify Dillinger’s violence, but he is attuned to all the ways in which, in the movies, cruel acts can also have a brutal elegance. When Dillinger and his cohorts storm into any of the various banks they rob during their big spree, Mann and Dante Spinotti (who frequently works with Mann) shoot these glorious, fragile institutions with a suitable degree of respect: With their polished oak railings and delicately veined marble pillars, they’re like temples under assault. Concordantly, when Dillinger and his gang storm in, with their trim but supple overcoats and sharply creased hats, they’re dressed for a day of business — they show at least a modicum of respect for the physical institutions they’re robbing, even if they have nothing but derision for the government that allowed such places to fail during the Depression.

I’m sure plenty of people will want to make the case that “Public Enemies” is exceedingly relevant in our own economically troubled era, but I don’t think it is: Dillinger was a charming figure who courted the press and spoke directly, even flirtatiously, to his public. As criminals go, he was a dashing one, a movie-star-caliber figure for a time when we still had movie stars. It’s hard to imagine a contemporary real-life equivalent, and I think even Mann knows that Dillinger was purely a product of his own day. And Mann isn’t pretending to give us stark history here; he’s in thrall to the legend, and he’s picked the right actor to fill in the outline of that legend.

Depp is as close to being a ’30s-style movie star as we’ve got these days, and his Dillinger offers a peculiar mix of star quality laced with pathos: Even as he flashes that instant charmer of a smile, there’s also something gaunt and haunted about him, as if he were living his life in reverse, as if he already knows how it’s all going to end. Maybe that’s why, when he woos lowly hat-check-girl Billie with a gift — a coat with a luscious fur collar, nicer than anything she’d previously dreamed of owning — the flash of pleasure that crosses his face actually seems to mean something. Depp doesn’t shade his performance with obvious shadows of foreboding. What he does is more complex and more difficult: He acknowledges that the grab-it-and-run approach to pleasure, and to life, has its limitations.

Beyond what Depp conveys with his characteristic subtlety, “Public Enemies” doesn’t offer a particularly deep psychological study of either Dillinger or Purvis, even though it attempts to limn their delicate rivalry. We’re supposed to root for Dillinger yet harbor a grudging respect for Purvis — but the latter is something of a tough sell, with a dullard like Bale in the role. I don’t think Bale is a lost cause as an actor — or at least, I hope not: He’s been terrific in fairly recent pictures like Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan nonbiopic “I’m Not There” and James Mangold’s western remake “3:10 to Yuma.” But too often these days — particularly in the Christopher Nolan “Batman” pictures — his performances have been marked by a dully mechanical efficiency. In “Public Enemies,” you can practically hear those delicate veins in his temple throbbing: They’re acting as hard as they can and Bale doesn’t let us forget it for a minute.

Mann doesn’t waste Bale — if anything, he gives the actor way too much screen time. But others here become lost in his mixmaster shuffle, and “Public Enemies” would be a better movie if certain performers had been shifted to the foreground. Cotillard is the biggest casualty: Her Billie is a storybook moll, a wide-eyed smart cookie with a keen sense of class consciousness. (As she reveals to Dillinger, she’s part Native American, and her mixed-race background will always mark her as an outsider.) Cotillard and Depp are wonderful together — Billie’s insecurity is like a welcoming little well for Dillinger’s tenderness — but they have only a few scenes together; the movie leaves us parched and longing for more of them. Late in the picture, Cotillard has an exceptionally fine moment with Stephen Lang, who gives a carefully shaped performance in his small role as Charles Winstead, one of the Dallas lawmen ultimately called in by Hoover to take Dillinger down. Mostly, though, she’s a delicate presence lost in the movie’s swirl of style; Mann could have, and should have, made more room for her.

That doesn’t completely diminish the pleasures of “Public Enemies,” which is ultimately an odd blend of frustrating and satisfying. The picture throws off an aura of wistfulness, which may be Mann’s acknowledgment that of course he can’t re-create the past. The best he can do is to honor the idea of it, storybook-style, and to remind us that before there was gangsta, there were gangsters.

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>