Too arty for mainstream audiences, and apparently too arty for critics too, Public Enemies wasn´t exactly what most were looking for from a $100-million Johnny Depp-Christian Bale July 4th blockbuster. Like most Michael Mann films, it received a rather lukewarm reception upon bowing in US cinemas.
Which is unfortunate. I was going to herald Public Enemies as Mann´s best since The Insider, or even Heat, but let me go out on a limb: it´s Mann´s best film period, an out-and-out masterpiece that succeeds not only as a immaculately detailed, beautifully realized portrait of the last months of John Dillinger´s life, but also as an immense technical achievement. Digital video has been used effectively in recent years as both a gimmick and substitute for film, but Public Enemies is the first major film in which the technology stands it own.
Dillinger (Depp) is a notorious bank robber, but he´s also a Robin Hood-like folk hero: “we´re here for the bank´s money, not yours” (a line copped from Mann´s Heat.) He´s become an obsession for FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who appoints top agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to take him down. During the course of Public Enemies, Dillinger escapes from prison twice with the help of his crew (which includes characters played by Jason Clarke, David Wenham, and Stephen Dorff), robs a number of banks, falls in love with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), and – if this is a spoiler, this film isn´t for you – is eventually gunned down outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago by Purvis´ squad, betrayed by his mafia connections and the notorious ‘Lady in Red´.
Plot, however, is the last thing on Mann´s mind: his film is a study, of characters, of themes, of a bygone era; the nature of right and wrong and good and bad. This is strung together through a number of highly memorable set pieces, with the breakouts, the robberies, the shootouts, all highly compelling within their own bounds, even if the overall film doesn´t have that driving force that grabs you and doesn´t let go. Above all, though, this is a work of art.
Depp naturally oozes charm, and he´s a perfect embodiment of Dillinger, the anti-hero complicit in murder and mayhem but, hey, not all that bad. Cotillard is award-worthy as Frechette, the character lies at the heart of the film and provides its emotional backbone. Supporting cast is likewise excellent, from Crudup´s Hoover, Clarke´s Red, Stephen Graham as Baby Face Nelson, Peter Gerety as Louis Piquett, down to Stephen Lang as the professional from Texas Purvis calls in. His final scene with Cotillard is unforgettable.
Bale won´t get much recognition, but the film´s depiction of Purvis is incredibly read-between-the-lines rich, and his performance hits all the right notes of subtlety. Mann´s matter-of-fact presentation leaves little room for any characterization, even with Dillinger. But Purvis is foppish, mostly ineffective; he gets his men killed and doesn´t have the respect of the professionals he brings in. He´s the villain of the picture to Dillinger´s anti-hero, and the way this is eventually conveyed is quite brilliant.
In previous years, we´ve seen digital video used as a you-are-there gimmick in films like Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project; it´s also been used as a replacement for film by directors like David Fincher and Robert Rodriguez, and Mann himself in Collateral and Miami Vice. But Public Enemies is the first film I can recall that combines the two techniques in a way that fully exploits the technology.
The film is breathtakingly beautiful. Mann showed us in Collateral that video can capture night in ways that film simply couldn´t; scenes here – in particular one of the film´s best sequences, the Little Bohemia shootout – look gorgeous, in ways we really haven´t seen before. But it isn´t just the nighttime scenes: the cinematography by Dante Spinotti is florid, lingering, employing traditional cinematic techniques with just the right balance of the handheld realist stuff. And the set design is immaculate.
We´re always aware that this is video. Or at least, that this is different: it´s a 1930´s period piece, and it looks like no other period piece we´ve ever seen, with the heightened realism that only digital video can offer. I want to say the digital look accomplishes this by itself, but shaky-cam stylistics and guerrilla-style zooms are also employed. Tastefully. This never delves into Greengrass Bourne territory; the editing, in particular, never draws attention to itself.
Minor quibble: digital video still ain´t perfect. There are a couple instances of what I´ll refer to as “ghosting” during scenes of quick camera movement.
Major quibble: while the film certainly seems genuine and rigidly adherent to minute details – the famed “Lady in Red” is wearing orange and white, as she really did – it actually plays so fast and loose with basic historical facts that anyone familiar with the events will be dumbfounded. All the characters are here, but they appear together when they shouldn´t, where they shouldn´t, and they perish in the wrong order (Pretty Boy Floyd is killed near the beginning of the film, but he actually outlived Dillinger – and there are numerous other examples.)
The disregard for historical fact didn´t hinder my enjoyment of the movie at all, but I´ve been trying to wrap my head around it and cannot offer a plausible reason Mann and his writers chose to portray the events in this manner. There is an effective scene late in the film where Dillinger walks into an empty police station, sees a lineup of his associates, and realizes he´s the last of his kind, but there´s otherwise little reason, plotwise, why they couldn´t have stuck to the basics and made the film more accurate. The style in which Public Enemies is filmed certainly seems to call for it.
Mickey Rourke is nothing short of phenomenal in The Wrestler, an intimate, personal drama that comes as a surprise from director Darren Aronofsky, the man behind Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain. It´s note-perfect casting – Rourke´s own troubled past and physical transformation precisely mimics that of many a professional wrestler – but the actor also brings a tremendous emotional depth to the film. He should have won the Oscar for Best Actor.
Rourke stars as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an aging pro wrestler in the vein of WWF stars Jake “The Snake” Roberts and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. The Ram once performed in front of crowds of thousands, but his heyday is long over: now he performs to smaller crowds in community centers and high school gyms. And soon he won´t be able to do that, either: after a heart attack, his doctor tells Randy he cannot wrestle any longer.
Randy is in the same predicament that many professional athletes find themselves in: they were able to do one thing and do it really well, but these are professions that can only last about 20 years. Unless they were extremely successful, they have to begin a new life at 40.
So what does Randy do? He gets a job at a supermarket. Flirts with a pretty stripper (Marisa Tomei) who initially rebuffs him, but soon comes to care for him. And he tries to re-establish contact with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he hasn´t had contact with in years. Randy tries to get his life back in order, but the wrestling is in his blood, and when it comes calling for him again, he´s helpless to resist.
Director Aronofsky´s previous films have been energetic, pulsating; nothing would seem to suggest he be adept at handling The Wrestler, which is not only a low-key character study, but also one that focuses on a very specific subject not often explored in film. But here this film is, crafted with affection and care, easily ranking with the director´s better work though it couldn´t be more different.
One thing The Wrestler gets absolutely right, like the excellent documentary Beyond the Mat, is its portrayal of professional wrestling. Many people consider pro wrestling to be ‘fake´, but that´s only true to the extent that it´s a show, and the results are predetermined. But these guys are really up there, really taking a beating. They plan how they´re going to inflict pain on each other, then go out and do it; one of the more memorable scenes in the film involves the ill-advised use of a stapler.
Also opening are two Czech films from New Wave masters, both of which premiered at the (still ongoing) Karlovy Vary Film Fest: Miloš Forman´s Dobře placená procházka (A Walk Worthwhile, showtimes), which is a filmed version of the National Theatre performance of Jiří Suchý´s jazz opera directed by Forman and his son Petr; and the horror film T.M.A. (showtimes), directed by Juraj Herz (The Cremator). Neither is screening with English subtitles in Prague at the moment, but the English-subtitled prints screening at Karlovy Vary should make their way to Prague soon.