Public Enemies: a second look
Public Enemies threw me for a loop, and I’m hardly the only one. The film has divided critics as sharply as any release this year, but what’s fascinating is not only the extent of the split but also that writers seem conflicted about exactly what to praise or pan. On one hand, you’ve got Manohla Dargis going all out and calling the film “a grave and beautiful work of art,” comparing the sky in the opening sequence to "the kind of sky that tends to show up as a backdrop in paintings of the Madonna and Child." On the other, you’ve got David Edelstein, who admires aspects of the film but doesn't like its notably dispassionate take on Dillinger, saying that "only Depp’s sense of fun…keeps it from being a period gangster museum piece." The award for the most outside-the-box criticism would have to go to SpoutBlog’s Karina Longworth, who says the combination of lo-fi aesthetics and the emphasis on romance at the expense of other aspects of the story essentially makes it a “really expensive mumblecore film.” (There’s an interesting prospect: Joe Swanberg’s Public Enemies.)
As I suggested in my review, it’s difficult to wrap one's head around what Public Enemies is and what it isn’t; for me, a second viewing helped. (I can’t think of a tougher nut to crack on a shorter deadline, with more ground to cover, from the publicity surrounding the local shoot to issues of fidelity to Bryan Burrough’s book. One hopes Universal had a good reason for keeping out Chicago weekly critics until the last possible second.) Coming to the film fresh gave me a better appreciation of Mann’s structure, as well as Depp’s canny downplaying. His Dillinger isn't so much resigned to his own doom, as I suggested, so much as he is always conscious of it, resisting it, joking about it. He has charm but not a boisterous kind of charm—a far cry from Warren Oates’s tabloid-ready depiction in John Milius's 1973 film. Ebert suggests that this is the first Dillinger movie to see the character as a fundamentally bad man—"a film that shrugs off the way we depend on myth to sentimentalize our outlaws." Depp's Dillinger does sing “Get Along Little Doggie” as he escapes from prison in Crown Point, Indiana, but it's clear that his brand of humor is almost more frightening to those around him than reassuring.
I also came away with a renewed admiration for Mann’s vision of the Depression, which I compared to the soundstage America of Lars von Trier’s Dogville. It's not quite that minimalist, but it’s the same sort of feel, often evoking the era—as J. Hoberman once suggested of Dogville—mainly through costume design. The film's most impressive art direction is interior (and sometimes simply real locations). Mann pointedly doesn't give us any sweeping views of skyscrapers, and the idea of staying low to the ground—giving the audience the feel of skulking about—seems entirely consistent the aspects of Dillinger he's chosen to emphasize. Some critics have complained about the use of video. I wrote that it was a lower grade than Mann used on Miami Vice and Collateral, but “rougher look” may have been more appropriate; according to the production notes, the film was shot with both the new Sony HDC-F23s and the XDCAM-EX1s sometimes used by students. In either case, what you have is a view of the Depression that’s more immediate and less soothing than anything you could get from film. Keith Phipps at the The A.V. Club doesn't like the film's "unpleasantly unfinished look," but to me it just felt unexpected. Shooting on video is also no more arbitrary than shooting an early-'30s-set film in full color and CinemaScope, neither of which were used at the time but which are both commonplace in depictions of the era today.
Patrick McGavin makes a fine case for Mann as a "contradictory artist" who at times seems more interested in nifty digital technology than in storytelling, but who also enjoys working in classical genres and has "a Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges–like affinity for the colorful outsiders and hucksters that populate the margins." Sometimes his source material is even loftier: At moments in Public Enemies, Mann's compositions appear to evoke Hopper or Vermeer. A number of critics have criticized the sound mix for being muddy. I can see that, but as someone who thought that long stretches of Thief, Manhunter and Heat would have been improved by subtitles, I didn’t think the dialogue was particularly muffled, at least by Mann standards.
Public Enemies may be dramatically diffuse, but the throughline is there. If the supporting characters blur into each other, it’s only because Mann often prefers to leave us without context, privileging a feel of the experience over exposition. But look closely, and there's a further exploration of the class-anxiety theme that runs through Thief and Heat (and to a lesser extent, The Insider), as well as an interest in how myths are sold (a recurring motif involves Mann's fascination—echoing Dillinger's—with movies). This Dillinger is a shrewd manipulator of his own image; he cares about what the public thinks, he says, because he hides out among them. Public Enemies is a particular vision of Dillinger—in some ways one as perverse as Steven Soderbergh’s vision of Che Guevara—but it is a formidable one.