Wednesday, August 5, 2009

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Public Enemies

I can no longer keep silent about it. I was waiting for a third go-round before I wrote about it, but alas, that will probably never happen (in theatres, I mean). So, while I still have the desire, it is time to finally tell the world what I think.

Public Enemies effing rocks.

You probably figured that my sentiments were somewhere along those lines when you saw my Current Top Ten on the sidebar (updated monthly). But I cannot even stress to you how in love with this movie I am. Perhaps the evidence of my two ticket purchases within three days will be enough to convince you that this is a true must-see, a theatrical event that deserves to be known as one of the best films from the first half of 2009.

But people! Good people of the Silver Screening Room, let me warn you in advance that this is no popcorn movie. This is no shoot 'em up, close-calls, cat-and-mouse thriller. This is a deliberately-paced character study centering around John Dillinger.

It's a difficult role to pull of, certainly -- a sociopath that offers his coat to a bank clerk, a killer who sheds tears over his lady love. Johnny Depp's portrayal of this most infamous of criminals reminds me of a line from Jesus Christ Superstar: "He had that look you very rarely find/The haunting, hunted kind." And you can see it in Depp's eyes, even when Dillinger is reassuring Billie Frechette that no one can catch him. It's astounding what a mere tilt of the mouth or shift of the eyes can accomplish. And many will cry foul when I say this (most of my friends already have), but I think Dillinger is perhaps Depp's most accomplished role to date. It's certainly my favorite so far.

Of course, Depp has an astounding supporting cast to work with. Marion Cotillard is tops as Billie Frechette, Dillinger's main squeeze. Her accent only gets dicey in one scene, but as it's an absorbing interrogation scene that is at once appalling and masterfully done, it can be forgiven. Stephen Graham's Baby Face Nelson is a true force of nature -- he literally breezes in, fucks shit up, and is out before you know what hit you -- while Stephen Lang's veteran lawman-turned-FBI agent is awesome. If you want a match for Dillinger, look no further. Forget Christian Bale's stiff, embarrassing, forgettable Melvin Purvis (the film's only stumbling point, a disappointment from an actor I've long admired but seems determined this year to be unlikable); Lang's Charles Winstead is the real hero. Billy Crudup (J. Edgar Hoover), Jason Clarke (Dillinger's right-hand man), Branka Katic (the madam/Judas), and Peter Gerety (Dillinger's lawyer) all give brief but memorable turns (Katic and Clarke in particular).

Technically, I like it. The production design avoids gaudiness. Dante Spinotti's cinematography feels lived-in, real, has a "you're there" quality to it. Academy Award Winner Colleen Atwood strikes another homerun with the costumes, and for the first time I felt myself being more impressed with the men's clothes than with the women's 9surely that's how most people judge these, right?). And the sound, though muffled, worked for me. I liked how imperfect it was -- it gave a more documentary feel to the proceedings. And Elliot Goldenthal's score is perfect, appropriately reminiscent of the films of the time. Such a style should be more intrusive and bombastic, one would think, but damn if he doesn't make it work.

What Michael Mann has accomplished here is beauty. It does for gangster films what The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford did for Westerns, what Zodiac did for procedural thrillers. It takes an established genre and makes an elegiac, meditative masterpiece out of the conventions. Inspired.

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