Sunday, July 19, 2009

Public Enemies

Yesterday, I finally went to see Michael Mann’s latest film, Public Enemies. Mann has made some of my favorite films, going back to Heat and The Insider, but it wasn’t until I saw Miami Vice in 2006 that he became one of my favorite directors. The Insider is still probably the stronger film on the whole, but Vice was so perfectly atmospheric and inventive in the way it told its story. It’s the closest a Hollywood blockbuster has come, and possibly ever will come, to the poetic film language of a Wong Kar-Wai or Terence Malick.

Mann embraced digital video with Collateral, and refined the aesthetic on Miami Vice, emphasizing the unique properties that digital video has, rather than running away from them, and he continues that exploration with Public Enemies, a film that feels like no other period film to date. What Mann does is use the visual language typically associated with very realistic, of the moment works and then spins it to depict the world of 1930s crime. The effect is to ground you in the reality of the moment in a way the vast majority of period films fail to do.

Most characters in period films feel alien to us, they speak in a different language and take part in large scale conflicts that have become cultural myth. And, typically ensconced in lush cinematography and production design, they feel a part of a glamorous world that’s more alien than any piece of sci-fi. Enemies turns the conventions on their head, by stripping the past of that idealized glamour. We see movie stars on the screen, in the film’s finale, and the characters we see feel far removed from that world. The harshness of the digital video makes it at times feel like we’re watching people wearing costumes in the present day, not people in the 30s. But, the thing is, that’s what the past was really like. They lived in the same world as us, walked on the same streets, wearing those kind of clothes.

I could see people saying it feels wrong to have that aesthetic in a work set in the past, but I’d argue that it actually gives the characters an emotional immediacy that is rarely seen. This is an arty, personal drama, played out against the backdrop of the 1930s. Unlike most period films, there’s no attempt to give us a sweeping view of the world, the primary focus is very intimate. In fact, the scenes that don’t work as well are the ones that try to give context for Dillinger’s flight by establishing the world that Hoover and Purves inhabit.

The Purves/Dillinger dichotomy is an echo of Heat, which was all about juxtaposing the lives of criminals and the cops who were trying to catch them. That film was brilliant because it made you care equally about everyone, you wanted Deniro’s character to get away at the exact same time you wanted Pacino to catch him. In its expansive world building and split point of view, it achieved the same emotional effects as The Wire.

Here, Purves feels much more one note. Christian Bale is an actor whose consistent intensity can make it difficult to find any kind of emotional identification point. I don’t want Bale to follow DeNiro down the path of awful comedy franchises, but I’d love to see him stretch by taking a role like DeNiro’s pot smoking lowlife in Jackie Brown. And, because the character isn’t as fully realized, the scenes focusing on him feel mostly superfluous, particularly against the emotionally engaging stuff with Dillinger and Billie.

The relationship between the two of them captures some of the same feeling of the fantastic Colin Farrell/Gong Li relationship in Miami Vice, the sense of trying to live in the moment, while facing down an inevitable split. I like the way the relationship just sort of happens, there’s something of a meet cute, but it’s really just established and we accept it and move on. The development is very subtle, lacking the obvious emotional beats we’ve come to expect from a Hollywood film. It’s the casual intimacy that sells it, notably the first sex scene, and the scene in the bath. The jump from that bath scene to a bunch of feds busting Dillinger was particularly jarring and effective in establishing the inevitability of Dillinger’s downfall.

This film follows Mann’s approach in Miami Vice of decentralizing the narrative and instead immersing you in the specific psychology of our main character. Dillinger does very little in the film, there’s a bit made of his charm over the public, but the show he puts on for the world isn’t emphasized, nor is much of the mythology built up around him. You get hints of Dillinger as a kind of Robin Hood figure, but there’s no direct exploration of how the people feel about him or the context of the world he’s in or any of that. Instead, we infer the world around him and build it through the story.

And, the film resolutely refuses to hit the usual beats, there’s no montage of big money spending, and even the bank robbery sequences just show the bare minimum of visually evocative images before moving along. It’s not about the action, it’s about our emotional engagement, and emphasizing the reality of what doing this stuff would actually entail. That’s not to say the film is unerringly realistic, the sequence at the end where Dillinger wanders like a ghost through the office of the task force designed to capture him is a beautiful way of showing him looking back on his life before his death.

Much like with Miami Vice, the film features an extensive supporting cast that is not particularly developed as characters in the traditional sense. The rest of the crew don’t have those little quirks that typically pass for character development, instead they’re just there. I couldn’t say most of their names or specific jobs, but you get a sense of who they are, and the world they inhabit just by the way they behave. The performances are strong all around, but not showy or attention grabbing. You just accept these people as the characters they are. Even Depp, one of the world’s biggest stars, disappears into the role, coming alive when he’s with Billie, but spending the rest of his time devoted to the mission.

Even more radical than the narrative dedramatization is the aesthetic. I loved the way that many of the action scenes were lit almost solely by the machine gun fire. Think of the shootout in the woods, where Purves’s gunfire standing on the car turns the scene into an almost abstract series of sparks puncturing the darkness. The sound of the guns is far from what we typically hear in a film, stripping away the big sounds and playing them more like large scale firecrackers.

Mann is one of the only filmmakers to understand how to use the unique properties of digital to create images that have a mystery and beauty that eclipses 35mm film. This film reminded me of Inland Empire at times in its low lighting, and reality with magic slipping in aestethic. Think of something like the way that Billie’s makeup always looks very much like makeup that’s been applied by an actual person, not the perfect makeup of a typical film character. That builds the reality of the world, but I think it’s also beautiful.

As the film moves towards Dillinger’s death, the eerie abstraction continues. He walks out of that theater, a gunshot explodes and we see chaos in the streets and that’s it. It’s not an overwrought finale, it just happens. He never finds out that Anna betrayed him, it just happens. Some would say that Mann’s dedramatized goes too far in depriving us of the pleasure we might want from a film like this, but in eschewing the expected beats, he takes characters away from the prison of being in a period film or a gangster film and finds the real people underneath.

I don’t think the characters and emotion is quite as deep as Miami Vice, but this is a really interesting followup, deepening the stylistic innovations of that film, and again playing with the unique aesthetic of digital video to deepen our emotional investment with the character. This film is almost like Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-Wai’s film which used the genre elements, in that case martial arts action, as a kind of abstract visual commentary on the character beats. That’s what all the shootouts are here, precursors to Dillinger’s inevitable death.

Mann has grown so much as a filmmaker, and reinvented himself in a really interesting way. I love his early work, but I’m much more interested in the approach he’s taking now. It’s great to see an artist remain so vital this far into his career. This is the best movie of the year so far, and I’m sure it will be high up when it comes to make the year end top tne list.


malpractice said...

great review, man! this has probably been my favorite movie that i have seen this year, and i was frankly shocked at how most critics seemed to completly miss the point of it.

although i do disagree with you on Christian Bale's performance. he was actually my fav part of the movie. i dug the really subtle transformation he goes through in the film from trying to be what hoover wants him to be and then the real purvis emerging as we build up to the shoot-out at the house. i don't think you were really supposed to connect to him, nor Dillinger actually. The real Dillinger is the cold, no-nonsense guy we see planning and executing the robberies, everything else is just for show.

btw, did you see Taking Of The Pelham 123 yet? was curious what you thought of it since you are one of the only other Tony Scott fans i know.

Patrick said...

Critics definitely seem to totally miss the point of what Mann was trying to do with the film. It's the same as Miami Vice, I think a lot of critics have trouble approaching something as art if it isn't garbed in period style or Oscar pretension. They struggle to see the beauty in the pulp style of Mann here. It reminds me a bit of how the mainstream critical establishment only really embraced Wong Kar-Wai after the slow paced, period In the Mood for Love, but ignored the emotional pulp of something like Fallen Angels.

I haven't seen Taking of Pelham 123 yet. How was it? I should check that out, Domino is definitely on my list of most misunderstood and underrated films of the decade.

Mauricio (the guy from Mexico city) said...

I absolutely love Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider, Manhunter,Miami vice, all amazing movies), but I was extremely dissapointed with Public enemies. As it usually happens with later minor films of great directors, this one feels like a greatest hits from other films: almost every sequence reminded me another more emotive and achieved sequence from other Manns films. In order to work, the movie had to be romantic ad emotionally epic; instead, it feels extremely remote. There are no aesthetic epiphanies --like the one of these mornings moment of Miami vice-,neither a sense of angst or pressure --like in Heat or the Insider-. Everything feels fake and way miscast. The movie lacks urgency and a sense of purpose. The video technique may be very interesting and impressive,but sorry, there´s no poetry here, just masturbatory redundancy.

Patrick said...

I think it's true that a lot of the narrative beats are redundant of what Mann has done in the past, but the storytelling technique, both in the use of video and in the very minimalist storytelling, are what make it so special. The emotional focus is very narrow, capturing just Dillinger's push towards death, with no attempt to show us society at large or any of the things this type of film would usually do. I love the fact that it's a period film that isn't about the period, but about the people.

That's what felt fresh to me and made this more than just Heat Redux. If Mann had made the film in the 90s, I think it would have been redundant, now it feels fresh and new.

mauroforever said...

I disagree completely. Where you see people I see cardboard stereotypes (very unconvincing ones, by the way), but different takes and opinions are part of the fun.Greetings!