Monday, August 3, 2009

Public Enemies

There's a taciturn quality to Michael Mann's Public Enemies that I'm sure he regards as a virtue. Mann's deep love of macho playacting (he's like Scorsese without Scorsese's critical detatchment from his big-dicked poseurs) certainly extends to his own direction, which is at once swoony and brisk. And there's some real virtue to it---his refusal to subject us to what-does-it-all-mean speechifying can be welcome.

It can also leave us sort of unclear on, well, what it all means. Public Enemies is good fun---the clothes are nice, the picture looks good (though some of the gun battles take on a weirdly interlaced, flat quality when the camera moves too much), and it's great fun to see a bunch of actors comport themselves in all those period jackets. But in the end, it's sort of unclear why Mann wanted to tell this story, what he expects us to take from it, what distinguishes this movie from any of the other versions of the tale. Mann obviously assumes we have a fair amount of foreknowledge of Dillinger's fate---every mention of the Biograph theater fairly thrums with foreboding---which makes it all the more important for him to make clear why he's bothering to tell it to us, and he just won't.

There's hints all over the place---sometimes he seems interested in the Heat-like battle of wits between Dillinger and FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Sometimes his attention is grabbed by the gap between Dillinger the celebrity and Dillinger the man, best articulated a scene where Dillinger goes unnoticed in a movie theater full of people searching for John Dillinger, largely because he's just a guy in a hat rather than a 15-foot-high mug shot. Sometimes it seems like the love story is what he wants to tell, signaled by the big music cues that come in whenever Dillinger and his best girl, Billie Frechette, are separated or reunited.

But every time a thematic thread is raised, it's soon dropped---nothing ever sinks in. Purvis is introduced unerringly shooting down Baby Face Nelson with a scoped rifle---as the Fuzzwife noted, Mann seems to be setting up a conflict between Dillinger as a tommy gun (inaccurate but deadly) and Purvis as a rifle (just one shot, but it's a good 'un). But Purvis' shooting skills never come up again, nor does his patience, nor does his accuracy. Dillinger's celebrity is frequently teased, but it never really resolves---Mann certainly doesn't even seize the opportunity to give us a shot of Dillinger dying in front of the movie theater, which would solidify that idea.

Even the love story doesn't really take over, not least because while Frechette gets a little speech about her boring life up until now, Mann's too disdainful of psychologizing to really let us see that as an aspect of her character. Marion Cotillard doesn't get to dig into Frechette as a thrill-seeker, or as a girl from the rez trapped in bad rez choices of bad rez men, or as a country mouse enjoying big-city sophistication---she's just a plot device, placed in the movie to wear clothes, take off clothes, look pretty, get slapped, and cry. Maybe a better actress could have found a way past Mann's disinterest, the way Christina Ricci did in Buffalo '66, but considering Mann's relentless drive to move ahead whether or not a character trait has been established, probably not.

For all Mann's meticulous shooting, the overall impression is one of sloppiness---it's like Mann glued a bunch of scripts together and started shooting without bothering to resolve it into a single draft. This rushed, ramshackle quality extends to the little things as well as the big, as Mann has a terribly bad habit of failing to introduce information until the last possible minute, not as a suspense trick, but because he simply seems to have forgotten what we need to know. An early example is in the scene when Dillinger comes to the coat check where Frechette's working, fights off a customer, and takes her away. Just before Frechette goes from turning him down to leaving with him, there's a moment when she looks at the other girl working the coat check, and that seems to change her mind. Maybe it's because she sees something in the other girl that she doesn't want to become, maybe it's because she sees the girl's admiration for this tough guy who so badly wants to be her boyfriend. But it's almost impossible for us to even think about the question, because we've literally had zero visual indication that there even is a second girl at the counter before the shot where Frechette looks at her---I don't have a disc here, but I don't believe the other girl is even visible in the wide shots.

Another small but telling example---what sends Dillinger to the Biograph Theater is the heat of the Chicago summer, and the Biograph's air conditioning. But one the day he decides to go, after a series of scenes of Dillinger setting up various plans, he comes into the house and, in one shot, runs his wrists under cold water and says "It sure is hot---let's go to the movies." It seems like Directing 101 to establish that it's hot beforehand, so that you don't have to cram cause and effect into a single, clumsy moment like that, but here again Mann seems to be shooting scenes with no awareness of where a scene is going, so he has to carry out this kind of clumsy shuffle whenever the plot demands a reason for action.

Similar directoral sloppiness besets the action scenes. When Purvis and his boys have Dillinger holed up in a rural hotel, there's a lengthy discussion of who's going to approach from the north, who from the south, and what the plan is for closing the exits. But Mann never gives us shots that would make clear which way is north, who's coming from where, or how the plan goes wrong. It's fine if he wants to sacrifice spatial clarity for visceral excitement---I'm not a purist about knowing who's standing where---but it's bizarre to do so after giving us so much setup discussion of the directional plan.

Public Enemies is a perfectly good time at the movies---I went to see Johnny Depp wear cool clothes and shoot guns, and it delivered. But while I don't mind its anemic moral vision, it's narrative messiness borders on real contempt for the audience. Taciturn silence looks great on a western lawman, but on a storyteller, it's more than a little irritating.

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