Saturday, 4 July 2009

Public Enemies

Public Enemies is the new Michael Mann film and it is beautiful. Its about death really, about people hanging onto something, adrenaline, a person, a job, to try and find a heartbeat, as life slowly draws to a close. The film is also about the rise of the FBI, from a series of state-controlled cop shops to one that is organised under J Edgar Hoover, with an eye to stamping down on organised crime.

The film is tied to the general facts, that Dillinger was released from jail, went on a crime spree, was caught, escaped again, things slowly going wrong for him as his people are slowly hunted down one by one by the feds while organised crime turns its back on him, leaving Dillinger with no way out. But its the details that really pump life into it.

We start, as with many Michael Mann films do, is by following the central character, seeing his world. Its is a world of detail, the setting up of the crime, the spread of people, Dillinger working out exactly what he needs to do to be successful while being very careful about the dangerous world he is in. We see the world quickly through details within action but Dillinger is always still, always focused.

Dillinger's problem is that he is defined by his society. He truly doesn't have much to him beyonds his smarts and what he thinks he is fighting for, which is money and to escape a lack of direction through direct action. Society and its appalling sins throughout the 1930's provides an enemy to him, something to define him. So when this society changes and gets wise to him, he has nowhere to go, has to wait slowly for death while those who he has genuine bonds with die one by one, usually in front of him, leaving him haunted, adrift and in hiding. The editing of the film is interesting in that the longer you spend with Dillinger without cutting away to others, this aspect comes through. This is a man in his own tomb, society around him focusing him in a way that leaves him few choices. Depp is great at suggesting a man adrift. I think this might be one of his very best performances, no longer fidgety, bored or distracted, which are some of his weaknesses at times as an actor. Here he always seems to be in the moment, seems challenged. Its pretty awful when you realise how little he is usually challenged by parts, always being too defined as quirky. This and his great turn in Sweeney Todd hopefully will lead to better work.

Bale is great also, is the film's secret weapon in that he's stunningly precise, being given little in elaboration but works on the details to suggest life behind a very careful exterior. Melvin Purvis is a civilised man who has to hunt psychopaths, has to be brutal for the public to survive such types. Bale gives wonderful reactions throughout to suggest both the civilised man and animal hunter existing side by side, always both, always a painful thing he has to deal with. Like Depp he is a good actor who gets half-written parts to elaborate upon. When working with a director such as Michael Mann, the details become the character without speeches so Bale can really do what he does best, which is instinctive, without giving speeches that elaborate and dull what he does best without words. In some ways this is what I wanted to see Bale do with Batman. In this he seems so much sharper and alive than we've seen since The Prestige or Rescue Dawn, two other recent Bale highlights. I really hope he continues to work with Mann as I think there could be some amazing work if Bale moves centre stage in the next Mann film.

Marion Coitallard is also terrific as Dillinger's girlfriend, playing what could be a dull part with a sense of the society that defines her. She doesn't have much screentime but really makes it a presence. Mann also gets back together with Stephen Lang, who plays Bale's lead hunter. Lang was in the masterpiece Manhunter, but more importantly, was the moral focus in Mann's other great work, Crime Story. Here he plays what should be a cold hunter and gives it stunning complexity. The film is great on the hunters of Dillinger, even though nothing much is said as its what's going on with looks and little shrugs, how someone studies a paper. Stephan Graham as the loony Baby Face Nelson is another indelible performance in a short time, as the guy is a nut but is cunning and animal like.

The film is full of moments of grace, from Bale hunting Pretty Boy Floyd, to the bank robberies, which start off as a rush and keep that pace, even as they start to suggest doom and no way out, toe Dillinger's end, one of the great death sequences in cinema.

The film is shot on video and looks terrific. Mann truly has worked the technology to be what he needs it to be. This film again shows that Mann is one of the few serious directors, along with Cronenberg, working today. Its an amazing experience, and like Miami Vice, sure to be underrated in favour of a more flashier type of film-making.

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