Every bullet fired in Michael Mann's Public Enemies signals death. It is not just a sound effect inserted to heighten chaos or extract intensity from violence. It is the sound of another human life fading away, being dissolved by time. We hear flesh tearing, metal intruding into fragile inner parts. And then another gunshot is fired. Throughout the film's 140-minute running time, Mann attempts to sustain the near-impossible feat of drawing attention to the intimacy of this final act without hampering the vicious flow of time, which always brings more casualties, often within fractions of a second. The film, set in the Depression Era and focused on the historic cat-and-mouse chase between outlaw John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and FBI head Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), says very little about organized crime and its changing face, the corporate judicial system, or the worst economic period in American history, and it doesn't need to; nowadays, Mann seems attracted to the crime genre precisely because he is riveted by conflicts of extreme immediacy and gravity, the better to highlight the unknowable void between life and death. He found in Dillinger and Purvis an interpersonal tension, a total ambivalence towards anything beyond the immediate future, and a dangerous occupation - and in Chicago a climate of public unease, economic turmoil, and civic confusion - that suited his fundamental concern for the rush experienced when facing this void. So he ran with it.
While bullets threaten to bust speakers, voices, even when yelling or speaking firmly, have the cumulative effect of a whisper. Not only is this a welcome ingredient for Mann, who has never been a master of dialogue, but it primarily functions as a way of simultaneously rendering words more sacred (what's quietest always invites greater attention) and more meaningless in the context of a broad conflict that plays out through action. There's a moment following a sporadic gunfight that ranks among the most piercing things Mann has ever shot: Dillinger witnesses the slow death of his friend and bank-robbing cohort 'Red' Hamilton (Jason Clarke) in the front seat of a dusty old Chevy, his eyes grinding to a close as his exhausted soul mutters a few garbled syllables. It feels as if the film has momentarily gone silent, and indeed hearing words would probably cheapen the poignancy of the image. I get the strange sensation that Clarke himself is dying, not just his character. Of course, failing to hear what he communicates in those final seconds is mirrored by Dillinger's own inability to comprehend, or fully absorb, the words. The loss of understanding between two people, or between audience and fictional representation, is death as much as anything else.
Digital cinematography (a topic of endless debate elsewhere because of the uncertainty as to whether it produces an essential effect or if it's just a technician's side note) is as integral to the feeling as the sound design. For my generation, DV and HD is the tool of the common man, the domain of the home video and of the majority of my own filmmaking. It's inalterably close to the idea of shooting something "real" (which is not to be confused with saying it looks "real"), whereas celluloid, because of its cost and scarcity, is more difficult to acquire and therefore associated with something unreachable, ideal, beautiful. Mann realizes that the life that interests him is not beautiful, and that digital can, if one wants it to, have a certain kinship with the ugly, the uncomfortable, and the tragic that celluloid must strain to achieve, an ability to reveal these aspects of human existence more directly and more intimately. Public Enemies deals with people who kill and torture and steal and pursue others without considering the larger significance of their actions, and digital cameras detect the weakness and insignificance of them. As usual, Mann compulsively romanticizes and critiques his soulless outlaw characters, but the HD, for me, balances these tendencies. It can't help but make the film resemble actual bodies behaving idiotically in space and time.
It could be that Depp and Bale have both given the best performances of their respective careers or that I find myself increasingly aware of them as real flesh-and-blood actors trying to embody creatures of the mythic imagination. Whatever the case, there's something remarkably moving about the depiction of these two men who are aligned in their isolation and constant forward motion - Bale towards Depp, Depp towards something intangible and ill-defined (happiness, love, thrills, permanence, freedom?) Mann gets right up in their faces when they face pivotal decisions that force them to re-evaluate their quests, such as the encroaching shot in the police station as Bale quietly considers the growing restlessness in his fellow agents, perhaps wondering if he might not be cut out for such work, or the climactic montage of shots of Depp's smirking mug and the beaming image of Manhattan Melodrama, in which Dillinger glimpses himself and the inconsequence of going on. When Mann's not studying their faces, he's adopting their movements and entering their being, so that a shot of another character becomes a view through their perspective, and a jolting body movement is always equaled by a jolting camera movement.
Time does not wait for establishing shots. In the rush of Public Enemies, there are only individuals moments stitched together, not the standard chunks of scene and sequence that constitute a traditional approach to narrative. Mann sees the Dillinger/Purvis conflict as an endless string of experience and sensation, an arrow that shoots briefly but violently through history. It's hard to think of a film in recent memory that feels more relentless. Only The Turin Horse comes to mind; Tarr and Mann are interested in worlds with different tempos, but they are equally unrelenting in their relationship with time. Both directors never pause for editorial comment, psychologizing, or prettifying. They are slaves to the march of existence, and if they catch fleeting bits of magic (the horse's tear or the flicker of the lantern in The Turin Horse, the bottom of Marion Cotillard's foot during sex, the crackle of muzzle flashes in the dark forest, or a dying breath crystallized in cold air in Public Enemies) it feels almost incidental.
None of the film's expressive intangibles forgive some of its glaring weaknesses - the underutilized Cotillard as Dillinger's love interest, the salient lack of color correction in some scenes, the sporadic, uncritical recycling of Dillinger iconography - but they do overshadow them. To watch the film from a narrative frame of mind, and thus to get hung up on elements of plot and character that are both secondary to Mann's concern and don't fit conventional structures, is to do an injustice to the film's primary mode as a sensory experience. Few films get inside a period and climb within it like Public Enemies does. Firstly, it's concerned with making the viewer a part of this deadly chase, with transmitting the vertiginous feeling of being in these life-or-death circumstances, and the inevitable side-effect of this immersion is a grand seriousness towards death. The film's only well-chosen use of slow motion (a stray two or three instances in the rest of the film violate the forward thrust) is during the moment of Dillinger's demise, because a work about death must die itself when its subject perishes, and what better way to signal the death of a film than to slow its frame rate, regressing it towards the stillness of photography?
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