By KATIE O’CONNOR
It is always fascinating to see a real person you know almost nothing about depicted on the silver screen. It’s even more fascinating when that person led a life largely consisting of crime, violence and great sex. “Public Enemies,” a biopic of the infamous bank robber John Dillinger who wreaked havoc on the FBI during the Depression, satisfies that desire on all three counts.
The film opens with a daring prison escape orchestrated by Dillinger. Unfortunately, this scene is one of the best and sets the bar a bit too high for the next two hours. A hand-held camera coupled with quick cuts ensures that the audience feels the tension and excitement of a situation teetering on the brink of disaster. Unfortunately, the hand-held is used throughout the film to tiresome and dizzying results and spoiling what, if it had been used sparingly, could have been a really nice effect.
The screenplay is as jilted as the camerawork; all of the criminals are indistinguishable, and their relationships with one another are fuzzy at best. “Baby-Face” Nelson (Stephen Graham) is advertised to be one of the main characters, yet by simply popping in and out of scenes in an exhausting whirlwind of mania, he seems more like an overly enthusiastic brat than anything else.
Johnny Depp phones in his performance of the devilishly charming Dillinger, relying heavily on extreme close-ups of his brooding eyes and furrowed brow to relay emotion. Dillinger’s growing agitation through the film reads less like a criminal’s fear of being cornered and more like Depp’s cathartic dealing with a career that has plateaued.
One redeeming aspect of Depp’s performance is his chemistry with Marion Cotillard who plays Billie Frechette, Dillinger’s love interest. Dillinger’s unwavering loyalty to Frechette is truly touching, and it is the love between these two characters that fuels the last forty minutes of the film.
Jason Clarke is wonderful as John “Red” Hamilton, who is Dillinger’s only real friend. A soothing presence in the film, Hamilton cares for Dillinger whenever he seems to be teetering on the edge of desperation. Christian Bale as Detective Melvin Purvis is sadly forgettable. Despite some clever exchanges with J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and a moving scene where he rescues Frechette from an abusive interrogation, Purvis falls flat as a character.
In the end, Johnny Depp makes his films synonymous with pizza and sex: When it’s great, it’s really great. And even if it’s not that great, it’s still pretty good.
Cheap Seats Screenings:
“Public Enemies” — Sept. 16, 18-19
“Drag Me to Hell” — Sept. 18-19
Check cheapseats.umwblogs.org for times and locations.