How can you make a boring movie about John Dillinger? I wouldn’t have thought it possible until I recently rented Public Enemies. If you heard of a movie starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard, with the director of Heat and The Insider, wouldn’t you be interested? I sure was.
Public Enemies sure is a pretty movie to watch. It’s abundantly clear the budget went to art direction and cinematography. Plus, they filmed many of the scenes at the locations of the actual events. You get to see Depp’s Dillinger shot in the head while walking out of the Biograph Theater on the same Chicago street the real Dillinger was shot in the head while walking out of the real Biograph Theater. You get to see the Indiana prison where Dillinger and his cohorts were briefly imprisoned. You get an all-too-short shot of the Hotel Congress in Tucson, Arizona, where Dillinger was captured alive for the last time.
And, you know, there are the actors. Johnny Depp should be the epitome of the smooth criminal. Christian Bale should be perfect as the diligent G-Man hot on Dillinger’s heels. And Marion Cotillard is totally hot. But for reasons unknown to mere mortals, the whole thing never takes off. None of these elements grow into the mighty oak of a movie Public Enemies should rightfully be.
I can tell you two things I noticed that kept Public Enemies from generating my interest. Too much time devoted to a love story that isn’t in any way fresh. This is what I got from it: Dillinger was able to get any woman he wanted because he looked and sounded exactly like Johnny Depp. If you look and sound exactly like Johnny Depp, and you’re a famous criminal to boot, you can talk to that fancy French girl and she will fall in love with you. We know that already. Can’t the screenwriters make the dialog a little more interesting than the premise I just laid out? We know they fall in love, but let’s see them work at it a little.
The second, more important, failing of the movie is harder to explain. I’ll call it a lack of forward momentum. We know that Dillinger is wanted by the law, and we know that Dillinger robs banks, and we get to see both those things. But for some reason there is no urgency in either endeavor. It all felt so preordained that I wondered why they were going through the motions.
Richard Kelly directed Donnie Darko, one of the most incredible science fiction movies of all time. OF ALL TIME. Then he made a movie, Southland Tales, so overstuffed with character, story, and ideas, it literally made no sense at all. And it had no ending. So he moved on to something more manageable as a movie: the retelling of a short story by Richard Matheson.
Richard Matheson wrote Button, Button for The Twilight Zone, as well as a whole host of other stories adapted for the small and big screen (I Am Legend, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, and Stir of Echoes, to name a few). Richard Kelly was working from solid source material, but then again so was Michael Mann when he decided to tell the John Dillinger story.
One thing I liked about The Box was the carryover of many of the themes and character types from Donnie Darko. Without making a rehash of his beloved classic, Kelly manages to work in quite a few of the things that made Darko such a personal, bizarre, compelling film. In The Box, Cameron Diaz plays a serious English teacher, much like Drew Barrymore in Darko. Partway through the film we are introduced to a book that supposedly explains every weird thing that has been going on, yet this book only raises more questions than it supposedly answers. There is a creepy teenage boy who looks like he was brought in from a Kubrick film. There is plenty of water imagery symbolizing (perhaps?) forward movement, even movement between dimensions.
I can see why The Box failed at the box office. The audience must pay close attention. There are clues throughout the film as to what the eff is going on, but it’s never spelled out for you. There are creepy things that happen, things like background characters staring directly at the camera for no immediately apparent reason, or dark figures moving outside the house without being immediately explained. I hope you see what I’m getting at: The Box is not going to hand you anything. You have to wait a little, and that is part of what makes this movie so freaking good.
The Box sets up a premise and successfully follows it through. It is surprising without being gimmicky (I’m looking at you, M. Night Shyamalan). It is the perfect movie to watch on a cold rainy night. It’s creepy without being a ghost story, unsettling in all the right ways. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that the whole story takes place against the backdrop of NASA’s landing of the Viking landers on Mars. It’s an awesome set-up with the perfect frame.
So go rent The Box and make sure Richard Kelly gets to direct another movie someday. Whatever it is, we won’t be underwhelmed.