On spotting a terrible movie

Leif Johnson — 24 Jul 2009, 12:07

Lucia and I went to see “Public Enemies” last night. Normally, being such a relativist, I give experiences in my life a wide berth of judgment. But this film, directed by Michael Mann and starring Christian Bale and Johnny Depp, this film was just plain terrible.

There were several bad aspects of this film, any one of which alone might have just made the movie mediocre. But, taken together, they totally destroyed the cinematic experience. The overarching problem was that nothing in the movie came together and formed a coherent whole. Several technical aspects of the film were hastily done or of otherwise patchy quality: The sound was uneven, and the photography was amateur in places. Instead of flowing smoothly through a plot that had literally already written itself, the screenplay was composed of unrelated vignettes, competing with each other for time and attention. Finally, the film itself was unclear in its motivation, pulling the audience over here to see this little corner of the world, and now up there to see this gunfight. At the same time, the acting was great, so it's a shame that the cast had to make such a valiant effort against the irresistible force that was the film's general spazziness.

My first clue that this movie was going to be bad was the noticeable sound. The sound quality in a film should do anything but attract attention to itself, but right from the beginning, the levels were set wrong in this film. Nowhere did the volume of the sound in this movie give me an indication of how I should be feeling. Nowhere did the noises that things made otherwise reinforce the images happening in front of my eyes. During the initial prison break scene, for example, the few words that were spoken barely reached my ears, and the gunfight from which the prisoners fled was just plain too quiet. Never did I hear the roar of the thirties Buick V8 engine as it supposedly strained to get the bank robbers out of town, and when Dillinger met his girl at a dance, the woman singing their theme song was edited into obscurity, leaving us to guess later that a song had been happening at all. The sound also collaborated poorly with the scene boundaries, sometimes fading in or out too quickly. Overall, the sound tended to trash whatever emotional resonance a small sequence of the film managed to acquire.

The cinematography also suffered from a lack of quality control. The director didn't seem to want to give us a single thematic approach to John Dillinger. Here we were on the scene of Blair Witch_w, in the woods with a handheld camcorder, peering through a poorly calibrated white balance sensor. There we had a full-scale film camera on a tripod, panning smoothly across a bank lobby. We saw a closeup of Purvis’ hands as he fidgeted with matches and a cigar, where before we saw a long view of the federal money train that the robbers were planning to rip off. Editing played its poor part here as well. Scenes were cut off abruptly, and occasionally a raw view of the stage made its way onto the screen. For instance, in an absurd gunfight in an anonymous forest, most of the scenes showed the actors playing Babyface Nelson or the FBI, standing at a window or behind a tree, trying to convince us that they were involved in a real gunfight. Instead, they all looked like what they were—standing on a sound stage with a prop and some flashing lights. (Again, cue the poor sound complaints.) The film never acquired a unity of vision to convey to the audience.

The script was similarly flawed. Most of the scenes in the movie were too short to grab onto emotionally. The relationship between Dillinger and his girl was constructed on the basis of maybe a dozen lines, leaving the audience to guess at how they came to be so serious about each other. In a story with maybe ten or twenty characters with significant ties to Dillinger, the film reveals the source or consequenes of maybe three of those ties. I learned the next day, by reading Wikipedia, the identities of several of the major characters in the story, which the film—even though it was 2.5h long—failed to present at all to the audience. Several characters were mentioned by name but never otherwise introduced. Memory, and particularly my memory, is a terrible thing in life, but from what I remember, many of the scenes in the movie clocked in at under fifteen seconds, unable to convey a single emotional thread from start to finish. And, as a result, the entire story remained fragmented and lost at the borders of the vignettes. (And again, cue the terrible background music, intruding early and too loudly into one short scene, to introduce the next already.)

All of this fragmentation totally destroyed what might have been a coherent, excellently told story. Instead of learning more about the connection between Dillinger and Frechette, we saw them in an anonymous sandy place (a beach of some sort ?), saying things that I don't even remember now to each other. When the gangsters broke out of jail in the beginning of the movie, Dillinger's mentor (I learned this from Wikipedia) died in the high-speed escape from the prison. But the audience never got to care about him, because we never found out who he was, or why Dillinger was holding on to him with that look in his eyes. We were left to guess, halfway through the movie, at whether Dillinger was referring to this moment as he sparred with Purvis about the look on a man's face when he dies.

The sound, the cinematography, and the story—none of these components managed to maintain a coherence that conveys a single story to us. We were left feeling completely meh about Dillinger, Frechette, Nelson, and Purvis. And this is too bad, because the actors really did a great job with the material they had. They ran around with silly tommy guns in the anonymous forest, in front of the camcorders with bad white balance. They wept when they learned of Dillinger's death at the hands of the strange vigilante FBI agent from Texas. And they tried to provide us with good death scenes. But none of it gelled, and we, or at least I, didn't care as a result.

My only recourse is to consider the film a total bomb, a pet project of some dude from film school who's obsessed with the crime genre but managed only to convey to us that he enjoys film and guns. Otherwise, it's just not worth trying to explain. Next movie please.