Monday, August 10, 2009
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, Giovanni Ribisi
Director: Michael Mann
Runtime: 139 min.
Genre: Action, Crime, History
No filmmaker can compose a poem out of the honor that exists among cops and criminals as Michael Mann can. He understands men, he understands what drives them, and where most filmmakers would need a whole page worth of dialog, Michael Mann needs only a little glance, or a little facial twitch, or a momentary gesture. His men are his men alone, and although they are of this world, they exist in a different realm altogether, with nobility in their thought and purity in their intention. The subtleties of this realm only he understands. Often his films seem to be speaking to us without ever trying to. From Manhunter, from Heat, from The Insider and from Collateral this is the film he has been working towards. It is about two men on the opposite sides of law (Heat), it is about a man overcoming himself (Manhunter), it is about a man’s honor (The Last of the Mohicans), it is about a man against the system (The Insider) and it is about more. Public Enemies is Michael Mann’s masterpiece, a glorious culmination of his themes, a crime epic of mythic proportions.
We all know John Dillinger was killed. We all know how. We all know the lady in the red. We know the fact, and we know the legend. Michael Mann plays both, the legend and the fact, in tandem, each causing the other into an inevitable chain of events. Dillinger caused mayhem for only a year or so, yet he was a national hero, a man who stood up against a system that caused national poverty and depression. He robbed banks, and the public applauded. He was a Robin Hood, but he was a man. I say that because being some kind of Robin Hood needs a performance, not truth but charm. The Dillinger character is one of the film’s great triumphs, subtly hinting at this predicament the man found himself in. He was a romantic, yes, but that wasn’t his true nature. I wouldn’t say it was a façade, for façade is something given to pretension and lies. Rather, the charm was a compulsion for Dillinger that he absolutely had to pull out when placed on the stage. Here was a man who, when advised by Karpis (the guy who would outlive everybody, including Melvin Purvis and J. Edgar Hoover) that what they do wouldn’t last forever, snaps back – We’re having too good a time today, we ain’t worrying about tomorrow – and in the same breath asks of him – Keep me in mind on the train – a job that would demand of them to hang their proverbial.
Mr. Depp’s Dillinger, in many ways, represents us. Our dreams. The romantic larger-than-life facet of us. I often wonder, given a choice what would most of us prefer to be – an outlaw or a lawman? I speak not in strict professional terms, but in the spirit of what these two lines represent. We, by our very nature, resist discipline. Even when in authority we dream of rapid changes and revolutions. Status quo seldom satisfies us. Guided by that young heart inside, we are always inclined towards the ideal. A romantic notion of it all. That is why I believe so many outlaws and revolutionaries capture our imagination.
Dillinger knew this, so did everyone around him, and Mr. Depp, in what is by my estimate his greatest performance and an accomplishment of craft and truth, conveys that man to us. That man caught between the two facets of his – the larger-than-life charmer and the average Joe. We all have it, you see, and assuming either of them is merely a matter of what compels us to feel good and comfortable at that moment. What makes the commoner inside of us rise to the occasion? Michael Mann and Mr. Depp construct it all so sublimely into a character that feels so true it comes across as a fact. They do not need a dialog, or a set piece. Often, all they need is a simple shot, like the one below, and the dreams that are harbored inside of Dillinger are conveyed. (And here is an image from that beautiful shot – the sky clear, and Dillinger looking around to see what the world has in store for him. I take the image from the trailer, and although the sky in it might feel murky, the actual shot in the film is sunlit. Some post-production work might have been involved.)
Or they would need the charming smile of the man. Mr. Depp would have been a great star in the heydays of the studio system, and if the real Dillinger had ever laid his eyes on him, I believe he would have found for himself another source of inspiration. Public Enemies doesn’t narrate the legend, but constructs it, and it constructs it through the facts. Dillinger and his merry men – Hamilton, Homer, Pete Pierpont – walk in and out of banks as if it was a stroll in the park. These sequences are choreographed with some kind of ruthless simplicity to them. I think Manohla Dargis of New York Times puts it best – During the first robbery he shows Dillinger and two accomplices from high overhead, the camera peering straight down as the men fan across a black-and-white bank floor like MGM dancers. When Dillinger leaps across a railing, he soars.
He meets a pretty girl, Billy Frechette (Ms. Cotillard, La Vie En Rose), and he swoops her right off her feet. She is a strong self-respecting woman, who wouldn’t just be anybody’s girl, and yet she falls to the charms of the man. Michael Mann frames these scenes in the warmth of a golden hum, and he gives Mr. Depp dialogs that would have been worthy of Humphrey Bogart. And Mr. Depp doesn’t disappoint, turning on the irresistible charm. She seeks to know the man, and he charms her to an illusion, and often asking her to believe it – Say that you know it, say it. And she walks right into it. It is a heart-wrenching performance from Ms. Cotillard, and in a way tears flowing of her eyes after she learns Dillinger’s final words provides some sort of closure after Michael Mann so cruelly broke Eady’s heart in Heat.
And I say again, John Dillinger isn’t putting up a façade, he genuinely loves Billy Frechette, and to that effect, he is putting up a façade for himself. Here is a man who would be tensed as everybody when being chased, and here was a man who would sing a song just when he was sure he had escaped unscathed. This was a performance, yes, and it slowly becomes the truth for John Dillinger. In strange times, we do not need to convince anyone but ourselves, and more often than not, it is the self and the mirror we got to answer to. Not crowds. To be a liar, you got to be a pretty low man. Dillinger is not, and he has no other way than to convince his way into the iconic creation of his own self. Michael Mann doesn’t go about deconstructing the legend of John Dillinger, nor does he go exploring inside him. He merely captures the transition of Dillinger as the larger-than-life persona slowly envelopes him, inspite of the reversals in fortune. You should see the audacity he commits on the day he dies, and the place he walks into. This is a man who has all but embraced his own lie. There is another fantastic shot, where John Dillinger is placed amongst the common citizens he represents, and you should see Mr. Depp’s smug gaze, saying to them – I’m not you, you fools. (I take this image again from the trailer. And here, when this image arrives in the movie, Dillinger is well on his way to embrace his romantic persona.)
And no outlaw ever outlived the law. Or life. In what’s a triumph of casting, Michael Mann casts Christian Bale as Agent Melvin Purvis. I say triumph because no actor can look dispassionate in the face of outrageous provocation better than Bale (courtesy: Roger Ebert’s review of Equilibrium). His pursed lips and his cold gaze seem like the absolute face of the Authority. He represents the System, and maybe, while catching up with Dillinger, he represents the equanimity of life. Mr. Bale plays it not like a character, but as an institution. Unprejudiced, unbiased and fair. Here is a man strong enough to stand in the face of someone of the influence of J. Edgar Hoover (Mr. Crudup in one of the film’s finest performances). When The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy were on the run, you might have wondered, alongwith the duo, what the faces of those relentless pursuers would look like. They would look like Mr. Bale’s and like Mr. Lang’s, who plays Purvis’ investigators Charles Winstead. Indefatigable in their purpose, and honorably so. These are two great performances, by Mr. Bale and Mr. Lang, for they dissolve so neatly into Michael Mann’s vision, and elevate it. There is not much room for emotion, for Michael Mann reveals nothing about the two men outside of their jobs. Singularity of vision is what guides them, and singularity of tone is what the filmmaking assumes when the detectives are on the screen. It is all brutally matter-of-fact, and one might wonder if these men had lives outside of the streets and offices during this one year to distract them. With only little glances at their disposal, Mr. Bale and Mr. Lang create a masterpiece of subtlety. Two of Purvis’ cops fail at marking Billy, and when they come to him in shame, you should see the expression on his face. This is authority, a picture of relentless discipline.
And Michael Mann, the poet he is, strings a tragic little thread here. It is tragic, yet it doesn’t feel scripted. It doesn’t feel staged, just as nothing does in Public Enemies. It feels as if Michael Mann has captured one of the strange jokes of fate. A case of never meant to be. Melvin Purvis doggedly pursues John Dillinger. He chases the Desoto into an apartment thinking it was John Dillinger only to find it was baby-faced Nelson. Through the woods in Little Bohemia, he chases Baby-faced Nelson assuming he was Dillinger, only to be disappointed again. And the shootout at the Biograph. Despite the discipline, I believe someone of the nature of Purvis would have wanted the satisfaction of nailing the man. I don’t think it was the laurels, at least not in Public Enemies. It was a personal victory of maybe catching the man who asks him to get another line of job. Of shooting down the man, who maybe, at a personal level, Purvis thinks to be his direct rival. A personal victory borne out of respect. I’m not sure I understand the motivation completely. Yet, it is there, and although I’ve watched the film thrice, it doesn’t seem obvious. Michael Mann has stripped Public Enemies of the needless melodrama and thrills that Hollywood typically attaches to an action-crime epic. You should see Purvis in the final shootout. And you should see him after it. Within a matter of two shots, Michael Mann sublimely captures the sudden realization of emptiness in a man’s life. It is a glorious shot, one of Purvis walking away from all the lights, and an overhead shot of the same. He walks away from it all. (I again capture the images from the trailer. Watch the beauty of the second image. Everybody is walking towards the center of attraction, while Purvis is the man walking away from it all. And I assure you, it is much more beautiful and poignant in the film.)
Public Enemies is a masterpiece of purely visual storytelling. It is a masterpiece of mood, not the clichéd visual ones filmmakers like Sam Mendes use, but intense emotional ones that bring to mind David Lynch, and Michael Mann. In the thick of it all, when Dillinger and his men would sleepwalk through their targets, there is sun lit large all over the place. The sky seems to be clear. You should see the clear sky in the opening Indiana state penitentiary jail-break sequence, and when Ebert observed that the serendipitous shot of the clouds looming large in Bonnie and Clyde was a stroke of fate, I think he would have celebrated the marvel of Michael Mann’s usage of the digital filmmaking. He clouds the skies, and he manages to capture the brightness of night. And he seems to have drained every bit of thrill from his shootouts, and from his filmmaking, and instead resorting to pure tension. His sequences do not feel like set-pieces, unlike many of Hitchcock’s, yet we only feel tension. Public Enemies has a fascinating architecture – disjointed scenes in the first half capturing the series of events that start to close in, ever so slightly onto Dillinger. He was a state to state criminal, wreaking havoc in one for a time period and running away. He never thought what he did in one could get him in another. Yet it did, the Bureau of Investigation crawled their way around him. The narrative suggests thus, and as they draw closer and closer to him, it starts to get smoother – the Bureau finally connecting the missing dots. As that other crime masterpiece Zodiac created tension out of investigative procedures in office rooms, Michael Mann’s film creates not an action-set-piece but a procedural out of shootouts.
The final scene is a masterpiece, where Dillinger looks at Gable on the screen, and I predict twice within the span of a week – this is going to go down as one of those iconic moments of cinema, much like how La Motta channeled out Terry Malloy in Raging Bull. It is a masterpiece of acting - an icon (Depp) playing an icon (Dillinger) seeing an icon (Gable) play an icon (Edward Gallagher). It is a masterpiece of framing, of editing – You see the smile slowly but surely appearing on Dillinger’s face, convincing himself, and letting the romance possess him completely. It is a masterpiece of scoring – Elliot Goldenthal’s crescendo. Often, all it needs for a romantic is a movie.
I think Public Enemies is a masterpiece, and one of the greatest crime epics of all time. Beyond its authenticity, beyond its tension, beyond its romance, there’s a certain sadness among these men who surround these criminals, though I not know why. It is as if they are all walking towards their deaths, and they know it, and yet they shrug it. Here were men who were romantic enough to dream they could slide off the map despite being on the wrong side of the law. And behind them were detectives, two of them, who probably understood these men, caught them and killed them. And then what? Return to their desks? The final shot reveals two things – one of the men walking out of a door, and a note saying the other shot himself. The film seemed to be speaking straight to me. It always does in a Michael Mann film, in a Christopher Nolan film. But never has it happened that I couldn’t quite understand the enormity of what it was saying. I don’t know, but as I write this, my eyes seem to be swelling up. Public Enemies only grows with each viewing into some kind of beautiful dark haunted epic. I think when they talk about the emotional and spiritual nature of art, this is what they’re referring to.