Public Enemies

Rated R

I’m wildly intrigued by Public Enemies even though I readily concede that character development is all but nonexistent, and that it leaves me wanting to know who notorious bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) was more so than I did before I went into the film. Backstory? Forget it. Motivations? Never mind. This is a movie that exists completely in its own moment — not in the past, not in the future. (And maybe that says the most important thing there is to say about Dillinger.) Very much like Michael Mann’s previous film, 2006’s Miami Vice, Public Enemies drops us right into the middle of one of the key moments of American law and disorder ... and it leaves us to float, if we can, without anything to hang on to except for the flotsam and jetsam we find around us. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. But it is an intellectual thing, which means it’s not the kind of thing that American audiences tend to want from a movie. This isn’t a “let’s go have a good time at the multiplex and forget our woes” kind of movie. It’s a “I really want to think about what I’m watching” kind of movie. Which probably means it’s doomed, from a box-office perspective. Public Enemies is intimate in an animal sense, getting us on top of Depp’s Dillinger and Bale’s proto FBI agent Melvin Purvis without letting us get to know them. It’s like having sex with a total stranger: it’s thrilling and scary and maybe not something you’d actually do in real life. But as an experience ... whoa.

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