Movie Review: Public Enemies (2009)

Marion Cotillard and Johnny Depp in Public Enemies
Photo: Universal Pictures

It’s no secret how the life of John Dillinger came to an end; so when Michael Mann begins his telling of the Dillinger story in 1933 only allowing for just over a year’s worth of story to be told he isn’t giving himself a lot of time. However, in a matter of only a few scenes Mann establishes his lead as a calculated and loyal criminal capable of breaking his friends out of jail, but unwilling to lose one along the way — that is unless you are the man upon which Dillinger places blame. Here is our hero, or anti-hero as it is, and Johnny Depp plays him with an accomplished steely gaze. It’s a low-key performance surrounded by menace, desire and love, but at the same time this film won’t be for everyone as its slow pace and attention to detail are sure to bore many while enthralling others.

Public Enemies is based on the Bryan Burrough’s book of the same name and while filled with prison breaks, bank heists and a recreation of the shootout at Little Bohemia Lodge that rivals the classic gun battle Mann staged in the streets of downtown Los Angeles in Heat, this film is hardly an action epic. This film is a classical epic. It’s a period piece in every sense of the word, so much so the final moments while we watch Dillinger sit in the Biograph theater taking in Manhattan Melodrama the only difference between the classic Clark Gable and William Powell feature is that it is in black-and-white while Public Enemies is drenched in high-definition color.

I would best describe this film as following a similar structure to Mann’s Heat, while carrying the pacing of David Fincher’s Zodiac. Public Enemies contains plenty of gunfire, but action is not on sale here as much as Mann is determined to dig into Dillinger and what makes him tick, even though it appears it may be an impossible task.

At one point Dillinger introduces himself to his soon-to-be love interest, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), and tells her, “I rob banks.” She is startled by the statement, and rightly so, but that’s just who he is and he isn’t one for dancing around the facts. Dillinger’s a bank robber living in the now with no thought of tomorrow, and that’s just the way he likes it.

Of course, things change as J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) commissions famous law man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to take charge of the FBI’s Chicago office and begin the manhunt for Dillinger. Bale plays Purvis with a dogged dedication to his job, a dedication that appears to overwhelm him at times, yet his ability to assess a situation never seems compromised. Both Bale and Depp are extraordinary in their performances, but in such a way that neither ever takes it too far, and both thankfully stay clear of old-fashioned gangster stereotypes.

Depp never goes for the gangster role made popular by 1930s Hollywood and Bale doesn’t take his character’s dedication to catching Dillinger so far it becomes overcooked, something we certainly saw Bale do in Terminator Salvation. However, while Bale and Depp deliver, the true showstopper is Marion Cotillard playing Billie, a hatcheck girl that catches Dillinger’s eye and understandably he never wants to take it off her.

As much as Public Enemies is a film about a man who robs banks it is also about a man who seems to be on the verge of realizing there is more to life, but never quite gets a handle on it and it actually begins early on. A “staring into the eyes of death” theme seems to run through this film from start to finish as Dillinger deals with it in the film’s opening scene and Purvis encounters it throughout, in what seems like a calculated attempt by Mann to link the two foes.

Dillinger’s forward-thinking continues in his relationship (if you can call it that) with Billie, neither of them having any real direction in life, and the combination of her naivete and his dedication create an interesting, although not fully satisfying, pairing. As Billie, Cotillard is absolutely ravishing. Mann gives her wide-eyes and soft skin the treatment of a Hollywood goddess and she chews up every scene, but the beauty of this film doesn’t stop there.

Considering the release date and star power of Public Enemies you would think this was a summer tentpole feature, but to call it anything other than an art house period piece would be to mislabel it. Along with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, Mann manages to make the 1930s look like a version of the ’30s the cinema has never shown you before. Through the use of high-definition cameras Mann actually brings the ’30s into the Oughts and the realism may set some back on their heels. It’s a striking visual presentation and it makes the scenery as much a part of the movie as the actors living in it.

With all of this said you would expect me to come away with a final paragraph slathering additional adjectives to describe the emotions I came out of the film with. However, this wasn’t an easy film for me to digest and it is one I will be returning to during its opening weekend as I was upset there wasn’t a second screening I could attend before writing this review.

Mann’s dedication to Dillinger’s lack of foresight throws me for a loop as it sometimes stalls the progress of the film, but I believe that was the point. Dillinger robs banks. That’s what he does and there isn’t much more he is looking for. He’s a loyal, yet ruthless, character filled with hatred, but his hatred isn’t for the people, it’s for the institutions. While robbing a bank Depp uses a similar line to one heard in Heat, “We’re not here for your money sir, we’re here for the bank’s money.” There is a method to his lawlessness and it earned him some level of respect with the public, but doesn’t make for a narrative that’s easy to instantly embrace. I am leaving room for this one to grow on me or slowly settle down to the middle, but one thing’s for certain, it had my wheels spinning and may likely end up an all-time classic of mine a few years down the line.