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What lingers in the mind, long after Public Enemies is over, is the doomed romance shared by John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). The film is very discreet, but there is plenty of love between these two. With that sometimes obnoxious but usually endearing boyishness that inspires some men to announce their love instead of venturing a petition, to women who hardly know them, Dillinger adopts Billie as the girl that he's going to worship and protect. As the realist of the two, Billie watches herself being swept off her feet by Dillinger's desire for her, which is obviously more than carnal. Dillinger is an ingénu, and before sounding the trumpets in praise of Mr Depp's performance, serious moviegoers will recall that Mr Depp has played the most ingenuous character of them all, the title role in Ed Wood. Ms Cotillard's layers of sorrow and hopefulness are leavened by a guarded frankness that gives Billie an inner toughness; her concern for Dillinger is never quite maternal. But the lovers are as close as any mother and child. Their intimacy is, in fact, not alluring; it does not invite us to identify with either of them. His cocksure insouciance and her surrender would create an atmosphere of doom even without the gunfire and the manhunts.
Even, that is, if Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), determined to put a stop to John Dillinger's life of crime, were subtracted from the story. In stark contrast to Dillinger's light-hearted enthusiasm for the sport of robbing banks, Purvis is the buttoned-up professional, capable of one thought at a time. He is so chaste that he makes the passion between Dillinger and Billie look not only indecent but punishable. Mr Bale excels at playing men with no inner life; this is not, at least in his hands, a shortcoming. His Purvis is a hunter, almost a hunting a machine, as tenacious as a terrier and nearly as remorseless. The one occasion in which he allows impatience to tempt him into error makes for a very interesting shoot-out, but it jars; it is as difficult to imagine Purvis's being impatient as it is to imagine him missing a target. Impatience suggests an inner life that would only make Purvis inefficient, something that Mr Bale's marksman never otherwise is. There is nothing repressed about Melvin Purvis: he clearly enjoys being a lawman as much as Dillinger enjoys being an outlaw.
To these three magnificent performances we must add a clutch of equally superb supporting roles, from Stephen Lang and Billy Crudup (as another lawman and J Edgar Hoover, respectively) to Jason Clarke and Branka Katic (as Dillinger's right arm and his Judas). Lily Taylor and Giovanni Ribisi do amazing things with tiny roles. Even when we're not quite sure what is going on, we're confronted by actors who are obviously in command. So we trust them make dramatic sense of whatever happens next.
It would be preferable, of course, to trust Ronan Bennett's storytelling, but the compression of Brian Burrough's book seems to have worn the screenwriter down. Fidelity to the book (and to the facts of Dillinger's spree) is perhaps something of an albatross; it might have been better to throw historical accuracy to the winds, as David Mamet did for Brian De Palma with The Untouchables and David Self did for Sam Mendes with The Road to Perdition. Public Enemies might have felt less constrained, and more open to the grandeur of tragedy, if, say, the confusing interaction between Dillinger and Frank Nitti (of Al Capone's organization) had been quietly dropped.
The salient feature of Public Enemies, however, is of course its digital photography. If the film suffers from any defect — on a first viewing, at least — it is the want of film's richness. All too often, the tension of actions and reactions, particularly when shot in low light, is dissipated by the banal flatness of a cell-phone camera. Giving new meaning to the the idea of illusion, digital photography screams "You are there!" — stripping away, that is, the illusion of a story taking place in another time and place. You are there, with Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard. Dillinger and Billie have evaporated.
This is the complaint of a one-time viewer, however. Public Enemies easily joins the other two films that I've mentioned as a classic of Depression-era heartland violence. Even at a run-time of 143 minutes, it feels somewhat abbreviated; but it may take repeated viewings to come to grips with Mr Mann's way with a story. Public Enemies is certainly a movie not just to see but to know. (July 2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press