Friday, 3 July 2009

Public Enemies (2009)

This film is neither hopeless nor particularly successful. It is, though, too narrowly rendered. Its every moment falls into one of two categories: either (a) bank-heist, shoot-out-with-the-police, bust-out-of-jail BANG! BANG! or else (b) characters, talky-talky, readying themselves for (a). The only exceptions are a nicely buttoned-up, slightly homocaricaturist performance by Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover (underused) and a spark-free romance between Dillinger and Marion Cotillard's Billie Frechette, something hamstrung on the level of performance by the fact that Johnny Depp clearly isn't that into her, and on the level of the text by the fact that her anxiety that her boyf. is going to get hurt in all the BANG! BANG! BANG! runs entirely contrary to the movie's entire BANG! rationale, which is fully horizoned by BANG! BANG! and the varities of male BANG! posturing that appertain thereunto.

Public Enemies is a peculiarly flattened piece of film-making. The characters have no lives apart from the BANG! BANG!: no families, no communities to which they belong, no BANG! purpose or focus to their existences BANG! except BANG! And the jittery, faux-clumsy camerwork, the slidy shotframing, the fidgety cutting and the jolting shifts from celuloid to mobile-phone quality digital footage simply doesn't suit the scrupulous set-dressing and period detail. By contrast The Untouchables, in framing its daftnesses with a degree of formal artifice, brought its period much more compellingly to cinematic life. Public Enemies never manages this; the story-arc is too cluttered and fussy, and also, strangely, too denuded of actual context ... John BANG! BANG! Dillinger is supposed to be a celebrity, but apart from one shot of crowds of people lining the street this is wholly told, not shown. The Depression era poverty context is perfectly absent also, apart from a single title-board right at the start of the movie. And moments of rank, gooey sentimentality (bye-bye blackbird, Jonny's stooge declaring 'I gotta a feeling my time's up, and when your time's up ...') cloy, boy, they cloy. The result is diminshing BANG! returns, shootout follows shootout and with each BANG! BANG! BANG! we care a little less. If I had to sum up, though, I'd say the real problem is this face:
We see an awful lot of this face in the movie. The movie, frankly, is a study of this face. Now, Depp is an extremely talented actor; and what I am saying is motivated neither by snippiness nor mere envy. But Depp is too good-looking for this role. The reasoning behind the casting presumably was something like 'Dillinger had charisma, he was like a rock-star, a rock star who robbed banks! We need a big name star who oozes eleven types of charisma ...!' But Dillinger's was a rough-hewn, wild-frontier-throwback sort of charisma. He was, it is true, renowned for being graceful but in a rough, tough, streetfighter sort of way. Dillinger was an alley cat. Johnny Depp, on the other hand, is Johnny Fucking Depp. It underplays his beauty to say 'he looks like a male model', given that most male models would sacrifice a limb to look like him. But a male model, and a fancy-pants clothes horse, is what he is in this film, all the time, in every scene, all the way through. He's more than smooth. He's smoooooth. In Heat we saw the world through the perspective of the De Niro and Pacino characters; in Public Enemies we spend the whole time seeing Johnny Depp. The film needed a lead who looked like this:

And less like:
It didn't get this, though. Because even when he is made-up to look like
we in the audience can't help seeing


Abigail Nussbaum said...

I haven't seen this film, but could the dissonance between Dillinger's looks and Depp's have something to do not only with the change in standards of beauty but with the change in the meaning of celebrity? We're certainly more aware of celebrities' looks than people were in the 20s, if only because we have so many more opportunities to see them. I don't doubt that the rationale for choosing Depp was more or less as you describe it, but I wonder if a modern audience could accept the notion of a popular idol who wasn't movie-star handsome.

Adam Roberts said...

There's something in that, I think. But my problem is simpler: Dillinger was famously handsome; and Depp is famously handsome; but the logic of this film requires Depp to be an energised, teenage, tear-it-up sort of handsome, instead of which he plays the part (plays off his own reputation as a beautiful man) in an almost languid manner, all scrupulously immaculate fine clothes, effortless cool, eas-y does-it.

Brian said...

I grew up with the belief that any film featuring the Thomposon submachine gun was, ipso facto, likely to be good, but I do, in principle, understand that other points of view exist, and may even be valid in some peculiar way. So we can agree to disagree about the merits of the movie, or whether it's much worth talking about.

But I do think that your review assumes a lot about Michael Mann's intentions in making the movie, and that many of those assumptions don't really stand up. See, for example, To take a couple of random examples, Mann makes it pretty clear that he cast Depp because he admires Depp as an actor, and not in order to pursue an agenda about Dillinger as celebrity. And however it may have seemed when Dillinger's crony talks about his time being up, what Mann was actually trying to capture was a period belief in fate.

I suppose it's problematic to talk about what an author intended, and I admit that I read this interview before seeing the movie and was influenced by it. Still, it seemed to me, reading the interview, and watching the movie, that Mann had attempted to tell Dillinger's story in a spare and largely factual way, and to capture events as they would have seemed at the time, without imposing himself too much on the material. It also seemed to me, reading reviews of the movie, that its very spareness made it a Rorschach test for critics who were hungry for subtext to analyze, values to be assigned, and morals to be drawn -- where's the story?

As for the movie's not really communicating the Depression, or Dillinger's celebrity, I disagree, and I disagree with the assumption that it had to, anyway. For example, at the beginning of the movie, Dillinger's gang escapes to a house. The people they escape to are very poor, and take him in just on the basis of his reputation (which he carefully maintains, as he remarks later in the film, just so he'll have this support system when he needs it). As they leave, the woman who owns the house begs him to take her with him, and you can see why she'd need to escape her circumstances. Point made; why belabor it?

Nor did I find the reference in the end to "Bye Bye Blackbird" sentimental. Looking at it in context, Billie Frechette's in prison. When she gets out, she has nothing. She hasn't even seen Dillinger that much for the short time they were together, and she's paid a huge amount for it. This is pretty cold comfort, and the man who offers it is plainly a hard, realistic man who knows it, and is good enough to offer whatever consolation he can anyway. Again, there's the temptation to read into it, but all I saw in it was a reminder that they're living in a hard world. The movie is all about the Depression, whether it's foregrounded or not.

Agreed, though, about the way the movie looked. As far as I could tell, it was completely digital, and it really worked against the movie. Scenes that were beautifully set up and well photographed looked awful, I've seen the movie more than once, and the last time I left midway through because I didn't want to look at it. For what it's worth, it didn't seem so bad the first time, and I wonder if there's some variability in projection.

Azee said...

This is pretty cold comfort, and the man who offers it is plainly a hard, realistic man who knows it, and is good enough to offer whatever consolation he can anyway

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