Public Enemies (2009)

Michael Mann | 2hr 20min

Notorious bank robber John Dillinger is a slippery man, but he at least can’t be faulted for his honesty. The same day he meets his soon-to-be lover Billie Frechette, he also confesses to her the truth of his shady career. He moves fast with no inhibition, knocking down her uncertainty with a suave openness that comes naturally to Johnny Depp, so it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that when he is finally arrested and driven through crowds of Americans in Depression-era Arizona, he finds them cheering for him rather than hurling abuse. In such trying times where masses are suffering beneath the crushing capitalist system, his legacy effectively becomes a success story – not of a rule-follower rising to the top, but rather a criminal who dubiously levels the playing field by targeting the wealthy elite.

Michael Mann is well-acquainted with such urban crimes dramas as these, where criminals and law enforcers circle each other inside sprawling cities and ultimately discover something of themselves in their foe. It is a well-worn convention that he perfected in Heat and resurrects here in Public Enemies with Depp and Christian Bale, chronicling the final years of the real John Dillinger as he is tracked down by FBI agent Melvin Purvis across 1930s America.

Mann using the edge of the phone booth as a practical split screen, shoving Depp off to the left of this widescreen frame and displaying the train station on the right.

The result is a crime period piece that luxuriates in the extravagance and dilapidation of the Great Depression, studying this vast inequality to understand the frustration which motivates Dillinger and his crew of robbers. All of them are so used to the inside of jail cells that escaping almost comes as second nature to them, pulling it off twice in this film much to the frustration of the FBI. The first comes right at the start with Dillinger executing a carefully plotted prison break at Indiana State Penitentiary. The second comes much later and happens entirely spontaneously, proving him to be particularly resourceful in his use of a fake gun.

Architecture dominating Mann’s set pieces, whether it is the looming concrete slabs of prisons or the opulent period decor of 1930s banks.
One of the greatest shots of the film, using one of Mann’s many low angles to catch this light fixture behind Depp inside an old-school movie theatre.

The foundation of Mann’s success in Public Enemies is made up of thrilling set pieces like these, as well as his production design which opens ripe opportunities for marvellously imposing compositions. With a deep focus lens and a penchant for low angles, Mann turns majestic bank ceilings and opulent light fixtures into gorgeous backdrops for Dillinger’s crimes, setting him up as a dauntingly confident figure unafraid to take what he wants. Elsewhere, forest hideouts and concrete prisons become settings for action sequences beyond Dillinger’s comfort zone, forcing him to reckon with the grittier side of his job. Mann achieves a beautiful crispness in these set pieces, and yet in darker lit scenes he also occasionally lets through an ugly digital grain that is difficult to excuse.

This widescreen format lends itself surprisingly well to these close-ups, inviting us into Dillinger and Purvel’s inner worlds while using the background to keep us rooted in the setting.

Even beyond his long shots and excellent staging though, Mann brings an intimacy to his widescreen frame with close-ups of Dillinger and Purvel, their mental fortitude gradually wearing thin. Though their direct interactions are scarce, they are also incredibly revealing, as the two share a common understanding of the heavy conscience that comes with taking a life. With this established, the tension that leads into their final confrontation is immense, as Mann cuts between the FBI’s advance upon the movie theatre that Dillinger is inside, and the Clark Gable film he is watching. Just before he leaves, it delivers some wise words of advice.

“Die the way you lived, all of a sudden, that’s the way to do it. Don’t drag it out, living like that doesn’t mean a thing.”

There might be a roughly equal balance of screen time between Purvel and Dillinger in Public Enemies, but it is clear which one Mann is more fascinated by. As this notorious bank robber is gradually drained of his resources and his allies, he begins to shatter and take even greater risks, at one point walking through a police station in disguise and asking them the baseball game score out of sheer audacity. Public Enemies may not be the intensive study of opposing equals that Heat so effortlessly pulls off, but in Mann’s superb staging and Depp’s magnetic performance, it nevertheless becomes a compelling examination of an unjust system slowly squeezing out its most vocal dissidents.

Deep focus and magnificent staging in shots like these, staggering actors across layers of the frame.

Public Enemies is currently available to stream on Binge and Foxtel Now, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Polytechnique (2009)

Denis Villeneuve | 1hr 17min

The tragic college shooting that takes place in Polytechnique is bookended by two voiceovers, both reading out letters. The first belongs to the unnamed murderer, writing his suicide note that lays out his bitterly sexist motivations. Though he does not speak much throughout the film, it is this pungent misogyny which hangs over the film like a monstrous shadow, stalking victims down hallways and mercilessly taking their lives. The other voiceover which closes the film belongs to a survivor, Valérie. In the letter she writes to his parents she expounds the devastation their son has left behind, but she also speaks of the guidance she will provide to the child now growing inside her belly that they never gave to theirs.

Between the two voiceovers, Denis Villeneuve creates a terrifyingly bleak reconstruction of the 1989 Polytechnique Montreal massacre as seen through the eyes of two students. One of them is Valérie, who is badly wounded in a brutal attack. The other is Jean-François, who may be the closest thing we get to a hero in this hopeless situation. The model of masculinity that he projects exists in stark contrast to the killer’s toxic ideologies, and yet not even his selfless efforts to rescue his peers is enough to conquer the overwhelming despair that the shooter brings inside these halls.

Solid form in the repetition of this shot – before and after the shooting, light and dark, coming from opposing angles.

Villeneuve plays out this massacre twice over from the alternate points-of-view of Jean-François and Valérie. It goes without saying which version carries even greater mortal terror to it, given the killer’s motives. The first time we see him enter a classroom and send the men outside, we carry their guilt for not staying behind and doing more. The second time we watch this play out from the inside with the women, the fear is immediate and inescapable. Such is the impression that Villeneuve captures in this structure that even in repeating it twice over, we never quite feel that it really comes to an end. Just as it plays out in the minds of traumatised survivors for years to come, so to do we feel doomed to live out the same soul-shaking torment on repeat.

Snow white exteriors, almost the exact opposite of Villeneuve’s cramped interiors though no less oppressive. The bleakness is devastating and inescapable.

Outside this engineering school, snowy landscapes set a dismal, unforgiving tone that matches the killer’s cold isolation and bitterness. For these students, Polytechnique doubles as both a place of growth and a comfortable shelter from the icy Canadian winter, and as the lone shooter enters its premises, he destroys both. Those who manage to make it out scatter into the blizzard, looking like small black dots facing an equally dreary world than the one they just came from. For one survivor haunted by the trauma, this snow-white exterior similarly becomes the setting of his own eventual suicide, wrapping the young man up in the same pernicious grip which took away fourteen other students and teachers, and prolonging the massacre long after the killer’s death.

Claustrophobia in Villeneuve’s masterful staging and compositions. Most of all, it is his use of mirrors to create the illusion of openness, and his narrowed frames through doorways and corridors to lead us through his terrifying labyrinth.

Those who remain inside though, whether by choice or because they are trapped, find themselves locked inside a labyrinth. Long tracking shots hang onto the back of our main cast’s heads much like Gus van Sant did in Elephant, his dramatisation of the Columbine High School massacre, though within the modernist architecture of Polytechnique Montreal where narrow corridors and angles trap our main cast in claustrophobic frames, Villeneuve effectively turns the environment into a complex series of passageways to navigate. In one shot he flips his camera sideways to track across a row of bookshelves seemingly rising upwards, and later it turns completely upside down to turn a hallway ceiling into a floor which he unnervingly dollies down.

Unnerving camerawork twisting these university corridors beyond the usual perspectives – it becomes something truly warped and fearsome.

Perhaps the most disturbingly quiet image in Polytechnique though is the overhead shot of the killer lying dead on the floor, next to the body of his final victim. As Villeneuve’s camera pulls back and twists around, their two pools of blood intermingle into one. Had this been shot in colour, perhaps we would have recoiled at the overbearing gore of such a grotesque sight. Instead, his monochrome photography simply considers the light and shape of such powerful compositions, letting the symbolism of this shot arrive at a more psychologically unsettling conclusion – the deaths of all these people will forever be tied to one violent, hateful man.

Symbolism in this overhead shot, merging two pools of blood – the killer and his victim.

With Valérie’s final voiceover looking to the future though, Villeneuve delivers one last piece of hope. For those who lived and died through the massacre of Polytechnique, there may not be any more peaceful nights of sleep, trusting that the world is a good place. But in their children, there is always another chance for women to understand their value, and for men to do better.

The blocking of faces in this shot as both women play dead breaks through the extreme tragedy with a very slight sense of poignant companionship.

Polytechnique is not currently available to stream in Australia.

The White Ribbon (2009)

Michael Haneke | 2hr 24min

Michael Haneke continues his use of unsettling, open-ended mysteries to provoke both his characters and viewers into unresolved frustration in The White Ribbon, sending them on a search for answers that never materialise. It is a large ensemble that sprawls out across its bleak, restrained narrative, consisting of largely archetypal figures – most notably the Baron, the Priest, and the Doctor. These men represent wealth, religion, and intelligentsia, and together they enforce strict rules over the women, farmers, and children of the town.

We are first introduced to the narrative by the voiceover of an elderly schoolteacher describing a parable he isn’t sure reflects the truth in every detail, but which he believes may “cast a new light on the goings-on in this country.” The setting is a rural German village on the precipice of World War I. There is no need for any further contextual elaboration from the narrator.

Haneke’s has always been a formal master and a stylist second – but not so much here. The White Ribbon is his most visually stunning film in its black-and-white photography and impeccable blocking. Stunning compositions all round in these wide, distant shots.

At first the collection of unfortunate, unusual incidents that take place in the town seem like sheer bad luck. Maybe the wire that tripped the Doctor’s horse and sent him to hospital was supposed to be a harmless prank. Maybe the farmer’s wife who fell through rotten floorboards was just being careless. Some events can be more easily explained, like the grieving husband who hangs himself. But still, there is a strange aura of uncertainty around this village that only seems to grow. Suspicion is cast on the children, who exhibit strange behaviour. They leer at grown-ups accusingly, who then in turn deliver cruel, moralistic punishments. One girl seems to possess supernatural premonitions of these events – or perhaps she is really aware of some plot the adults don’t know about.

The children of The White Ribbon are truly chilling – leering quietly, as if biding their time through beatings and lectures.

The Priest resolves that tying white ribbons around the arms of the children will remind them of their purity, a fruitless bid for them to remain innocent. Yet these meaningless symbols are at odds with the adults’ treatment of the children. A boy who steals another’s flute is violently beaten by his father. One boy who confesses to masturbating has his arms tied to his bed. Directly after this scene, we catch the Doctor in the act of adultery with the midwife. In truth, it is these men who are the hypocritical, self-righteous sinners of the town. The children’s innocence is under threat from no one but the men who claim they are trying to preserve it.

As the breakout of World War I marks the final act of the film, we are once again reminded of the larger global catastrophe that is mirroring the smaller ones taking place in this town. This war to end all wars was an act of violence by men in positions of power trying to protect their families and countrymen, but it only ended up hurting the innocent. This widespread destruction of innocence traumatised a generation of German youths who would grow up to cause an even greater conflict. Haneke doesn’t offer specific answers about who has been tearing the town apart from within, but he does suggest that these occurrences are a result of the adults’ corruption. A passage from the bible left at the scene of a vicious beating of a child paints this out clearly.

“For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of their parents’ sins to the third and fourth generation.”

Still, most of the men and women of this town go on in their harsh ways, refusing to accept the possibility that the children are learning cruelty, not discipline.

“Despite the strange events that had haunted the village, we thought of ourselves as united in the belief that life in our community was God’s will, and worth living.”

Haneke frames his setting in The White Ribbon like no other film of his. An immense darkness closing in around the edges, or carving inky black shapes into his compositions.

The few that do recognise the changing behaviours of the children usually go ignored. When the Baroness tells her husband she is taking his children away from these surroundings dominated by “malice, envy, apathy and brutality” and leaving him for another man, his only concern is whether she has slept with this new suitor yet. Later, the midwife learns the truth behind the atrocities, but she quickly disappears. The truth is powerless against whatever is working behind the scenes here. Perhaps we are better off not knowing.

As most of Haneke’s films are, The White Ribbon is formally rigorous in its multitude of motifs. The titular ribbons, the closed doors hiding acts too terrible to see, the parakeets as mirrors of the children’s trauma – Haneke uses symbols to hint at something truly insidious, but just as the film never plunges into the barbarism of World War I, he often leads us up to the doorstep of evil only to cut away at the last second. He keeps us at a distance from his characters. Whenever we do see something horrific, like a mutilated bird or a dead woman, we never get a reaction shot following it. Emotion never immediately spills to the surface, but the cumulative effect of this repression does inevitably burst out in angry, violent demonstrations.

Brutal imagery, but with a cold, detached distance.

Haneke is not known for his striking images, but the stark, monochrome beauty of The White Ribbon leaps out in practically every shot. Though he isn’t averse to close-ups, Haneke’s wide shots are worth marvelling at for their strong compositions of sharp black and white hues battling it out for dominance of the image. In one scene the darkness of the night smothers the frame, only to be pierced with the blinding light of a fire billowing out from the barn. In another, the narration recalls how the snowy landscape “hurt the eyes”, though dark silhouettes of farmers can still be seen trudging through it. There is detail in the mise-en-scène right down to the costumes, as the opposing shades will clutter tableaus of crowds in the village square, balancing each other out.

One of Haneke’s greatest shots – a bright white fire burning in an inky darkness.
Bleak minimalism in greyscale landscapes, a reflection of the austere community.

Though The White Ribbon is mostly without music, the single exception comes in the final scene set in the church, where the children’s choir sings a hymn. It is an appropriate end to a parable that hints at, without ever explaining, how evil is born through puritanical chastisement, hypocrisy, and apathy. Haneke’s masterpiece is full of tension between the pull of innocence and corruption, but its lack of clear resolution is precisely what continues to make it so compelling.

Carl Theodor Dreyer in the immaculate blocking – frigid detachment between character, and a wonderful symmetry.

The White Ribbon is currently available to stream on Beamafilm and Shudder.

A Prophet (2009)

Jacques Audiard | 2hr 35min

In the lineage of epic gangster films stretching from the original 1932 Scarface, through the genre’s resurgence in the 70s, and all the way to the present day, Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet slots in neatly as a drama just as rich in character development and narrative power as any of its predecessors. The traditional rags-to-riches story arc finds new life in Algerian teen Malik El Djebena, whose six-year prison sentence lands him in the midst of a gang war between Muslim and Corsican inmates. Malik, being neither, is taken under the wing of the Corsican mob after carrying out an assassination on a Muslim prisoner, Reyeb, then later earns the trust of the Muslims as well after learning more about his own heritage.

The prison courtyard often caught from these gorgeous high-angle shots.

Audiard’s stylistic approach to the raw grittiness of the piece emerges in his handheld camera and cool, blue wash all through the penitentiary, within which his detailed accounts of the gangs’ complex power structures unfold and root this narrative in a modern-day, multicultural France. The contained scope is captured in high-angle wide shots of the prison courtyard where the rival factions congregate on either side, the disdain hanging thick in the open, empty space between them. Though all the inmates speak French, the language divide of Arabic and Corsican serves to isolate them from each other, and it is Malik’s resolve to defeat his illiteracy and master all three languages that provides him the key to great power, becoming “the eyes and ears” of the prison. In playing both fields he gradually finds himself rising up the ranks of the mob hierarchy, this upwards trajectory bookmarked by chapter titles imprinted over freeze frames and slow-motion shots that temporarily remove us from the immediate action.

One of many chapter breaks, slowing down time and dubbing Malik the eyes and ears of the prison.

These formal breaks are further justified by the bursts of magical realism which make their way into Malik’s otherwise grounded journey, endowing him with a divine clairvoyancy. On a practical level, it is a reflection of his ability to reach further than his usual grasp through his learned multilingualism and sharp wit, and yet within his own mind it manifests as ghostly visions of Reyeb, acting as his spiritual guide. In this ethereal form, holy fire follows Reyeb whenever he appears, sometimes wreathing and burning his body, and at other times burning atop his finger as a flame. Through all of Malik’s loneliest moments, Reyeb is there offering wisdom and companionship, but also silently reminding him of the sinful act that set him on this path.

Reyeb acting as Malik’s spiritual guide, bringing with him a holy fire.

If we were to doubt the reality of such hallucinatory visions, then Audiard brings Malik’s two worlds together at just the right moment during a tricky business dealing, when his prophecy of a car colliding with a wild deer comes to manifest. At this point, as the deer is flung high up into the air, Audiard returns to the slow-motion photography we have witnessed in his chapter breaks, emphasising this manifestation of Malik’s spiritual gift. Just as he wins the astonished respect of those present to witness his prophecy, he similarly goes on to earn the esteem of high-level mafia operators with his insight and diplomacy, leaping over those who he once served. The model of reformation that Malik embodies might superficially point to the success of the justice system, as he does indeed come out from behind bars with an education, refreshed spirituality, and a new lease on life. And yet there is a distinct irony to the fact that in achieving these goals, prison has also incidentally turned a petty criminal into a drug kingpin. As Malik finally reaches the end of his six-year sentence and suavely leaves with a leather jacket and neat haircut, Audiard’s powerful final shot reveals an entourage of black cars silently trailing behind them. Now with a mass of allies and associates, endless opportunities await the Algerian prophet and crime lord as he continues to expand his empire into the society that once despised him.

A fantastic final shot from Audiard, cementing Malik’s future on the outside as a major figure in the crime underworld.

A Prophet is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.