In his previous feature Miami Vice, Michael Mann had a prominent character name-drop Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. The mention wasn’t random, as shown by the cowriter-director’s latest effort, Public Enemies. Watching this high-definition retelling of the Depression-era exploits of bank robber John Dillinger (Depp) is akin to flying over, around and into an overstuffed, Pollock-like canvas. In the moment, it seems like an intellectual recapitulation of its director’s frequent obsessions—most apparent in the deceptively Cro-Magnon approach to the gangster’s relationship with his adoring moll, Billie Frechette (Cotillard). But Mann’s after different game here.
The key image comes early: During a harrowing jailbreak, Dillinger looks into the eyes of a wounded comrade as the spirit slips out of him, the loss taking a protracted, uncomfortable beat to register. He’s now all the more aware of his own death rattle, though that doesn’t stop him from living it up until his last gasp. Mann treats the period setting the way Dillinger treats his crisis—as something tactile and present tense. And the cast, which includes megastars like Christian Bale (as Dillinger’s FBI nemesis Melvin Purvis) and reliable character actors like Stephen Lang (as a quietly intense Texas Ranger), has been directed to play their roles with white-noise consistency so that no one particularly stands out.
It might sound damning to say that the film resembles a bullet-riddled carcass just barely clinging to life, but it’s exactly this ephemeral sensation, which Mann sustains for the entire two hours plus, that distinguishes Public Enemies. It’s a dream of a long-gone past in which the inevitable always looms yet never envelops. Everything and everyone seem to be teetering on the edge of oblivion.—Keith Uhlich