There’s little left to say about Public Enemies that Brett McCracken (who is working on a book on hipster Christianity that is sure to be a must-read) hasn’t already said.
More than anything, Public Enemies revels in and inflates Dillinger’s mythic status. Depp’s portrayal is sympathetic to the last. Dillinger refuses to kill the innocent bystanders or take their money. He is in it for the money and for the noteriety, not for the slaughter.
As Brett points out, Depp’s Dillinger is always in control of his own self-image. Even his flirtation with unsteadiness of mind, an unsettling performance of ‘Git Along Little Dogie’ after escaping, is carefully crafted by Dillinger to make everyone else in the car think that he wasn’t quite right in the head. No jail can hold him, no bank can keep him out, and no girl can stand him up. He, if anyone, is Nietsche’s ubermensch, controlling the world and its understanding of him by the exertion of his will.
It is for this reason that we remain emotionally detached from Dillinger. Despite the movie’s attempts to draw us into his world through his friendships and romance, by the end we are ambivalent toward him. Such is the inevitable result of a mediated world, a world saturated with images and celebrities. We watch Dillinger watch Clark Gable on the big screen (a blatant parallel, down even to the mustache). Dillinger, the star of his own movie, is just as reserved from us as Gable.
Dillinger’s romance with Billie Frechette comes close to remedying this detachment, but fails. We know as much about her as we do about Dillinger. She too cares nothing for tomorrow, as evidenced by her monumental failure of discernment.
Public Enemies is a well crafted film, to be sure. It’s plodding, brooding narrative and stunning cinematography are enjoyable in their own right. But it is most interesting for what it lacks–a strong sense of connection between the audience and characters.