“I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore. I know life is short, whatever time you get is luck. You want to walk? You walk right now. Or on your own… on your own you choose to come with me. And all I know is… all I know is there’s no point in me going anywhere anymore if it’s going to be alone… without you.”
Every summer there’s one film that comes along and treats its audience with respect – like dare we say it, adults – and demands that you sit up and pay attention rather than just wait for the next explosion to come along. Public Enemies is probably that film this year, but it’s nothing like a conventional gangster film in any sense – I’m not sure how you describe it to be honest, it feels almost more like a docu-drama than anything else.
The above quote isn’t actually from the film but rather from Heat, but whilst much has been made of the similar structure (cop versus crook) the fact is that Public Enemies can be seen as Mann taking the digital technology he has used since Ali and taking it to its next logical step. Digital photography removes the sheen that is associated with film and instead gives a documentary feel to things. Mann has used this to create a documentary version of Heat set in the thirties – we begin halfway through the Dillinger story with no explanation of where he comes from or why he robs banks – focussing less on the story and more on the characters that move through it. Some have complained that the film feels plot-less, but that’s sort of the point – real life doesn’t have a plot, just a series of connected events.
The technology also creates an interesting angle on the period film. Instead of focussing on the lush detail and period recreation it’s instead merely a backdrop to everything that happens. Mann’s insistence on using real locations rather than sound stages furthers this sense of immersion without ramming the fact that things were different down your throat, it feels less like Hollywood than a film like this should and allows the film to go down some pretty fantastical routes in pursuit of the characters inner demons.
Some people complain that Michael Mann only makes genre films (ignoring the obvious likes of The Insider and Ali – neither of which sits within the crime genre) and watching Public Enemies it’s easy to see why people think this. However two hours into the film you once again realise that Mann is less interested in the mechanics of crime (although once again his obsessive-compulsive nature indicates that Dillinger’s methodology was researched to within an inch of its life) but rather once again what makes men tick. However for once a woman gets as much focus as the men in the film, Marion Cotillard presenting less a woman who’s just there to show that the crook has humanity but to present the fact that someone can see where Dillinger is heading and is torn as to whether to stay on board or get away whilst she can.
It’s all fantastic stuff, keeping the attention despite a slow pace (it’s nowhere near as action packed as the adverts would have you believe) by creating interest in everything and everyone. Small characters are given far more personality than most films and aren’t used merely as a means of furthering the plot or giving exposition. When the film does explode into action it’s done with typical aplomb – gunshots reverberate through the environment and every impact has weight behind it. Chaos & confusion reign in a way not seen outside of war films, but in a far less stylised form – gun battles just fade out rather than reach a conclusion. It’s this open ended aspect that is the most interesting thing about the way everything is structured, you get the sense that things will continue long after the film has finished.