The tradition of the heist film is well known; a charismatic outlaw cleverly evades police, on a spree of robbery and violence until he goes down shooting in a dramatic showdown at the end of the film while shouting his defiance. Michael Mann’s Public Enemies breaks this mold. Mann’s film is subtle and dark with outbursts of violence unfolding across stunning visual compositions. The story follows the devolution of John Dillinger, public enemy number one, as the newly formed FBI closes in on him.
A lone man stands against the desert and blue sky. Pops of gunfire flash in the night. Scenes takes place at night or in low light and shadow. Mann’s brilliance is in creating quiet moments of tension. When Dillinger escapes from jail he sits at a stoplight next to army men who could easily capture him. We wait in suspense with him until the light changes and he drives out of town. He sits in a movie theater as the screen flashes a picture of his face and tells the audience to look around for him. Later Dillinger walks into the headquarters for the man hunt and checks out their bulletin board and asks the score of the game.
Johnny Depp shines as the polite bank robber whose quiet charisma drives the film. Like other anti-heroes before him, Depp’s Dillinger has a strong ethical code, though it is not that of society at large, making him more sympathetic than others around him. Though Dillinger is public enemy number one, Mann paints Baby Face Nelson as more violent and impulsive, therefore deserving of the audience’s censure. Dillinger seems a victim of events beyond his control. The world is changing and there is no longer a place for him. The film moves inexorably to his downfall, yet the audience wants him to escape. It is a tribute to Depp’s skill that he draws the viewer in unaware until one is brought nearly to tears at the end. He robs banks, escapes from jail and romances Billie with a similar panache; bold, confident and secure in the fact that no one can stop him. Even caged he is in control and imperturbable, giving him the power to escape from jail with only a soap gun. It is when his certainty begins to fail that we see his vulnerability and desperation.
The heart of the film is the relationship between Dillinger and Billie Frechette. Marion Cotillard is stunning as Dillinger’s lover. Cotillard has a mastery of combining vulnerability and toughness that makes her all the more enchanting in this role. She catches Dillinger’s eye from across the room in a crowded nightclub, drawing him and the audience to her. Like Billie, the viewer is won over by Dillinger’s sincerity and raw devotion. The scenes between them sparkle with undeniable chemistry. This is where the film truly succeeds and captures your heart.
The main flaw in the film is that there are too many minor characters that are all indistinguishable from one another. It is difficult to keep the names and faces straight as there is nothing significant about any of them. I assume this is a nod to history, and the real people involved, but the film would have been better served with an amalgam. It would have also added another dimension to the film if we had seen more of Dillinger’s success to make his unraveling more palpable (similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but as is typical of Mann the film begins dark and spirals down from there.
A large part of the film follows the growing disillusionment of Melvin Purvis, played by Christian Bale as he goes father out on a moral limb to catch Dillinger. Bale’s Purvis begins tough and arrogant, certain what he’s doing is right, and shows no pause coolly shooting down Pretty Boy Floyd in the orchard with a shotgun. His attitude starts to change as his men die due to the fledgling FBI’s failed tactics. When one young man is killed by Baby face Nelson during an attempt to trap Dillinger, their attempted ambush turns into a shootout. Purvis is deeply shaken and tells J. Edgar Hoover, “Our type cannot get the job done” asking for lawmen from Texas to aid him, “otherwise I am leading my men to slaughter.” In a lovely moment of tension, Purvis and Dillinger face off through the bars of a cell. It is the only time throughout the film the two characters meet. Dillinger sees to the root of Purvis’ fears; watching his men die in front of him, which Purvis’ mask of bravado fails to cover.
As the FBI struggles to capture Dillinger their tactics spin out of control. Agents withhold pain killers from a gangster with a bullet in his head to force him to reveal Dillinger’s location; while trying to apprehend Dillinger, Purvis and his men shoot up a car with a family inside, killing them. When Purvis’ men arrest Billie and interrogate her an agent beats her until she pretends to break and give him Dillinger’s location. She is defiant and unwavering while beaten and shaking, calling him a coward and telling him “you walked right past him.” In the end, even the agents who kill him seem dismayed at Dillinger’s death and give his final message to Billie: bye bye blackbird.