Saturday, July 4, 2009

Public Anomie

There's a classic Michael Mann scene in his latest, Public Enemies, in which Johnny Depp as John Dillinger slips into the detectives' unit dedicated to his own capture. Dillinger peruses the collage of photos of him, his men, and his woman, and even speaks to the cops distracted by a game on the radio. One is reminded of the James Caan character way back in Thief who made his own collage of his Gatsby-like dreams, which he carried as a talisman and a transitional object. The problem with the Depp scene, however, is that the power of Dillinger's hiding in plain sight is diminished by having been used previously in the film at least twice--and Dillinger's moll even tells the Feds that he is wont to do this.

Mann sets us up for Dillinger and his nemesis Purvis (Christian Bale) to have a substantive confrontation, like Pacino and DeNiro did in Heat (as in this film, those men were cop and criminal, yet two sides of the same coin). But, alas, since both characters in Public Enemies are cyphers, there's potential power lost here, too.

And speaking of heat, I've always admired Mann's work in terms of the gravitas he brings to the relationhips between his men and their women--from Thief all the way to Heat, his male leads have had palpable connections with women that were more than mere romantic interest. Here, the potential connection seems to have been lost from the moment of casting--was Cotillard chosen simply because she's French, and Depp has a French partner? Because Dillinger's attraction to Billie Frechette is a mystery to this viewer (and she does not come off well at all when her attraction to him is sealed by the gift of a fur-collared coat). Post engagement coat (not as natty as any of Dillinger's, I might add) they're in bed, going at it like adult film stars (with the requisite counterpoint of tender moments intercut). It's rote and boring. One longs for the complexity of Clyde's impotence juxtaposed with his Bonnie's raw sexuality. No heat in the romance (or Romance) central to Public Enemies, either--and certainly no gravitas.

The passion and power in Mann's piece lie not in its characters, but in its love affair with style. The real stars of this film are its production design (by Nathan Crowley) and costume design (Colleen Atwood), including Dillinger's retro cool sunglass collection, which optical designers are no doubt feverishly reproducing for next season.

Don't get me wrong: I'm a formalist, I revere style and stylized films, but only when form is inseparable from function. Mann has often teetered on the edge in terms of being over-the-top stylistically (e.g., Hannibal Lector's pristine white prison garb and fashionably minimalist cell in Manhunter, along with the detectives' hip halogen office torchieres), but Mann is generally able to make his stories and characters compelling and substantive enough so that his stylistic excesses ultimately work in his favor. Not the case here. Mann has to layer another gangster film within his film to suggest, in Dillinger's eyes, what Mann wants his to be.

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