Dir. Robert Rodriguez, U.S., Dimension Films
Shot/Reverse Shot by James Crawford and Nick Pinkerton
Fade from black: an inky metropolis decked with blooms of luminous white. Rain falls softly on a balcony, sending black pools of water into turmoil, and a woman leans on a railing, arrayed against the cityscape. She stands out, not because she is beautiful (she is), nor because her figure is sublime (which it is), but because her dress is redâa bright, sparkling mustang redâthe only color intruding on a panorama thatâs otherwise entirely black-and-white. The image comes from Sin City, and, with it, codirectors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez establish their credo: here is film noir, but unlike anything ever before seen.
Set in Basin City, a fictional New YorkâLos Angeles hybrid that fuses only the worst of both, Sin City slaps together three intersecting story lines and a perfectly executed bookend from the pages of Frank Millerâs graphic novels. Faithful to the extreme, every shot and line of dialogue is a recreation of the comicsâ frames and words (hence Rodriguezâs supremely magnanimous gesture to make Miller his co-directorâa move that violated the Directors Guildâs one director-one film policy and precipitated his ouster from the DGA). Rodriguez is a great beneficiary of the graphic novelsâ cinematic tendencies; their compositions have a dynamism and a balance analogous to celluloid, and the text betrays that Miller possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of noir conventions. So while the screen crackles with incendiary violence, silicone-enhanced skin, and popcorn dialogue for the fanboys, thereâs enough intellectual heft and generic deconstruction underpinning the blood, tits, and verbal patter to keep the rest of us engaged.
The plot threads are whittled down to essentialist hard boiled fiction: Jack Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is a cynical-humanist detective plunged into no end of mental and physical torture as he protects a young girl (the sinuous Jessica Alba) from a would-be rapist-murderer with power connections up to the highest echelons of government. Dwight (a surprisingly unengaging Clive Owen) is thrust into a turf war between the mob and the prostitutes (led by Gail, played by the vampy Rosario Dawson) who are allowed to police their own red-light districtâuntil a cataclysmic event threatens to abrogate the truce between whores and cops. And then there is the filmâs emotional and structural core: Marv, a barrel-chested, brutally scarred social outcast whoâs a blend of brutal physicality, wry humor, and very few moral qualms. Under Mickey Rourkeâs brilliant performance that is by turns cruel and touching, Marvâs revenge-induced anger is a slow simmer, a barely contained inferno that erupts into paroxysms of violence as he sets out to avenge the death of a hookerâdoling out punishment to hitmen, complicit clergymen, and a cannibal (Elijah Wood) along the way. Through it all, the film experiments with narration. Each tough guy is given a slightly different rendition of noir voiceoversâone world-weary, one gruff and dryly mocking, one barely in touch with the world.
Looking back on these synopses, Sin City sounds absurdly comic, but within the strictures of its logic, the stories work, because while Rodriguez approached the task of adapting Millerâs novels with due gravity, that seriousness does not translate to a seriousness in the text. In the direction, there is a wry, self-deprecating acknowledgement of the filmâs excesses. I think thatâs where much of the critical backlash has been misguided: mistaking for earnestness what could only be perceived as caricature (which of course, is the highest form of flattery). Multiple characters saying âYeesh!â in a manner that almost makes the cartoon bubbles visible before our eyes? Parody. People that return from the dead despite being riddled with enough bullets to down an elephant? Parody. A man apparently shot dead only to survive via the oldest trick in the bookâthe bullet hit an object in his breast pocket? Out and out parody. That is not to say that there arenât moments of agonizing humorlessnessâDwight calling Gail a âValkyrieâ more than onceâand no-one can deny the sobering quality of his violence, but the majority of Rodriguezâs address is patently tongue in cheek.
His subject, as much as it covers a set of seedy characters in an even more depraved setting, is film noir itself. It is difficult to not be a fan of the genreâthe cinema seems to have been made for the gaudy patter of Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe and all the restâbut there was always something dissatisfying about the way itâs been executed. Not until viewing Sin City did it become obvious: Noir fails to deliver on a good deal of what it promises. The genre gets its name from a common trope of brooding, starkly shadowed atmospheres, but the proliferation of greys saturating the screen are unavoidable. (This isnât meant to be a straw-man rebuttal, i.e. âfilm noir isnât really black,â because that would be churlish. Rather, itâs an acknowledgement of the limits in celluloidâs chemical properties and the imagination of various cinematographers. I can count only a handful of filmsâTouch of Evil, The Third Man, and perhaps Kiss Me Deadlyâthat are well and truly dark). Noirâs blackness also refers to the debased morals by which its stories structure themselves, not to mention the way its characters lead their lives but are ultimately enslaved to the Hays code, firmly rooted in a disquieting, evangelical brand of Judeo-Christian morality: the femme fatale gets her comeuppance, criminals end up behind bars, and order is restored to the righteous world. Sin City therefore feels like a response to the failings in the cinematic imagining of Dashiell Hammettâs and Raymond Chandlerâs prose, the hyperbolic endgame for film noir that fulfils the genreâs potential. Noirâs aesthetics are supposed to be black, but never has there been a chiaroscuro more complete and absolute. Blacks with unfathomable depth collide with a white so blindingly brilliant, with the faintest motes of shimmering silverâor better, pearly argent, so near-white is its hueâoccupying what once was middle grey. Noir is supposed to be morally murky, but few films approach the level of depravity present here. Acts of unspeakable violence are the dominant mode of social discourse in Basin City, and everyone is complicit.
Aesthetically, the palette manages something paradoxical: it both intensifies and dulls the impact of onscreen violence. Like Quentin Tarantinoâs Kill Bill, Sin City is an experiment in blood artistry, but this time in colors. Characters bleed in black, white, red, and yellow, making effects cartoony and thus allowing a degree of emotional distance. Yet the horrorâs underlying maxim is that suggestion is infinitely more terrifying than direct display, because it allows the viewers to imagine a myriad of horrors. Rodriguez takes a page from scary movies; for me, scenes of severed limbs bleeding pure-white plasma were infinitely more gut-wrenching than sights showing accurately red human blood. With this palette, heâs created some of the most indelible tableaux of this still-young movie year: few images have been creepier than Elijah Wood smiling beatifically after going under Rourkeâs knife or Del Toro coming back from the dead to give advice to an addled Clive Owen; no action sequences are more captivating than Rourke crashing through a cop cruiserâs front windshield or pummelling a phalanx of corrupt policemen.
In light of Frank Millerâs considerable hand in Sin City, giving all the credit to Rodriguez is dubious, even more so given that Tarantino too directed one sequence. Nonetheless, he has gone a long way to move himself out from underneath QTâs long and pervasive shadow. Call it the ĂŒbernoir answer to Kill Bill: a formalist exercise with heft, a heart, and a mind.âJC
That old story our fathers used to tellâof mom throwing out their priceless comic collection without permissionâis already a relic. Comics in my lifetime have always been big business, and even my mother knew that. Growing up I scoured price guides and effortlessly knew the relative market shares of Marvel, D.C., and, later, Image (though I was a steadfast âMake mine Marvel!â partisan), the same way a budding multiplex cinephile might know his weekly box-office tallies. But my not-insubstantial collection still didnât survive my adolescenceâI sold all of my comic books at a ridiculous financial loss when I was 14. The money that I got I used to buy a few lousy punk-rock cassette tapes and matching T-shirts to impress a girl that I was interested in, who would wind up being my first girlfriend.
Our four-month thing was nothing special, and I canât listen to more than 30 seconds of Dead Kennedys nowadays, but that decision to trade in my comics was one Iâve never regretted and never less than during the grueling two hours I spent watching Sin City, the nadir in the cottage industry of funny-book moviesâcomics are bigger business than ever, and stupider too! Robert Rodriguezâs latest is inspired by Frank Millerâs serial âgraphic novelâ of the same name. I add the ironic quotations because graphic novelsâat least the slam-bang action varietyâoften seem to have as much relationship to real novels as âadult filmsâ have to the movies, the joke of course being that it takes very little maturity to watch a cumshot or a dismemberment. Along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbonsâs Watchmen, Millerâs gritty storiesâfirst set in the purgatorial Hellâs Kitchen of Daredevil, then the deco slums of Batmanâs Gotham, and finally on the streets of Sin Cityâare frequently pointed to as the artistic high watermarks of grown-up comic books. If all the talk of Sin Cityâs fidelity to its source material is to be believed, this speaks very little for the graphic novel as a medium. Rodriguez and Millerâs movie is a sluggish, nasty, and dull product custom-made for a coddled McFarlane Toys generation that never had its comic books thrown away, and was never told to grow the fuck up. Mouth-breathing fanboys go worshipfully prostrate at the mention of Miller, and the Cahiers gang may crow about the formal invention of this flick, but it's really just the usual smash-bang with a lot more splatter thrown on it. If you want a really against-the-grain talent, look to Ann Nocentiâa flagrantly leftist woman in an uptight, masculine mediumâwho took over Daredevil from Miller, and turned the series toward spiritual inquiry and real questions about the repercussions of violence. Sin City, by contrast, is just plain adolescent, and in the most deleterious sense of the wordâthink angry walking boners with patchy skin and Army surplus trenchcoats Scotch-taping fireworks onto stray catsâ tails.
The story, if you have to know, combines three tales from Millerâs books: A detective on the cusp of retirement (Bruce Willis, trying and failing to channel Ralph Meeker) puts everything on the line to save a young girl (sheâll grow up to be Jessica Alba) from a pedophile sadist (Nick Stahl) whoâs under the protection of a rich, high-ranking clergyman father (Powers Boothe). A juggernaut lug (a regally paunchy Mickey Rourke with a Kirk Douglas facial prosthesis) wakes up next to the still-warm corpse of the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (Jaime King) who was his for one night, then swears revenge on her assassins. A terse, confident tough guy (Clive Owen) hunts down the sleazy cop ex-boyfriend (a fright-wigged Benecio Del Toro) of his gal (Brittany Murphy) after the pig slaps her around, only to find himself drawn into a gangland war alongside his Amazonian streetwalking ex-flame (Rosario Dawson). And then the stories overlap and intersect and blah blah blah who cares?
As the preceding litany of parentheses suggests, the movie is glutted with recognizable namesâElijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, and Michael Clarke Duncan also pop upâmost given little more than down-and-out vamping and f/x makeup modeling to do, though Rourke, that most wonderfully physical of actors, does at least bring a nice leonine pride to the roll of his stomp. Something about these novelty flicks just brings the stars running, Ă la The List of Adrian Messenger, and Sin City certainly boasts an aesthetic hook thatâs firmly in gimmick territory. The filmâs shot in black-and-white, but select characters and objects are rendered in bright color, reproducing the two-color scheme of Millerâs original strips. The whole affair takes place among jagged, extreme shadows and the kind of showy, ultra-storyboarded camera set-ups designed to make you choke on your Sour Patch Kids while blurting âCooooooool!â; itâs eye-popping in the same insidious way that a Maroon 5 song is catchy. Stahlâs sickie Yellow Bastard is a rancid shade, thereâs a dash of crimson lipstick, and the copious blood most often comes flowing out in pure, ropy white, making the fresh-slaughtered look like theyâve been on the receiving end of some wicked bukkake. Hearing about this visual hook, I could only think back to when I was a movie theater usher and my seemingly semi-retarded, 19-year-old co-worker told me that heâd written a feature script; he showed me the dog-eared pile of pages and explained that it was going to be shot in black-and-white butâŠ with the blood in color! Just so we understand the level of thinking on display here.
This rancor might sound a little excessive, but then somebodyâs got to be. It would be hysterical if it werenât so depressing to listen to clueless critics line up to festoon this charmless trash with accolades, all the while pelting us with enthusiastic four-page spreads about the ascendance of nerd culture signaled by the mainstream dominance of Lord of the Rings, Batman, Star Wars, etc. Most are too excited at hitching their wagon onto this buzz subject to even once ask what this might mean. In reviews that just sparkle with affected naughty pride at having taken pleasure in such âdisreputableâ stuffâthis is much the same crowd that congratulated itself for not flinching at Pulp Fictionâhacks strut their egalitarian taste, dressing up their numbskull prose in arbitrary, half-informed references to E.C. Comics, pulp literature, and grindhouse movies. Always good for a laugh, Roger Ebert offers that Sin City âisnât an adaptation of a comic book, itâs like a comic book brought to life and pumped with steroids.â As to how this differentiates this from the vast majority of multiplex action fare isnât quite clear; Miller, Rodriguez, and Tarantino (who guest-directs a car-chase scene in Sin City) arenât doing a goddamn thing that the blockbuster hegemony hasnât been doing for yearsârepackaging and domesticating the frightening, outrĂ© nastiness of B-list material, sprucing it up with A-list production values, and attaching it to bankable names.
But that patina of auteur credo makes a world of difference, and it seems like Tarantino and Rodriguez have become the âR. Muttâ signature on exploitation tropes. Iâm pretty sure if you re-released Umberto Lenziâs Cannibal Holocaust and gave Q.T. the director credit, more than a few eager to be âwith itâ dupes would suddenly find some kind of spry, postmodern undercurrent to all that vivisection. Maybe theyâd even call it a celluloid mix-tape; it sure is a lot easier to regurgitate that helpful list of influences that comes in the press kit than to exercise any gray matter! And so it helps that Miller is a name artist, otherwise we might mistake the rote splatter-revenge fantasies in Sin Cityâexcessive scenes of a character tied to a chair and absorbing torture are the movieâs chorusâas something off the pages of D.C. Comicsâ nihilistically ultra-violent late-Eighties intergalactic bounty-hunter rag Lobo. If critics are going to insist on making comparisons, they should at least work on making them accurate. The hosannas for Sin City are as just embarrassing as the hysterical stuff from NME scribes who lob Gang of Four comparisons at every batch of thrift store fashion plates with disco drums. Jeanette Scottâs fussy, overcontrolled art direction in Sin City makes ludicrous any claim of connection to cheapo back-lot noir shot against gray balsa wood backdrops; a real paternity test reveals this filmâs direct aesthetic forebears to be Alex Proyasâs orgies of grimy set design, The Crow and Dark City, the âcinematicâ interludes in the Max Payne video games, and maybe just a dash of Pleasantville. The raw coffee-and-cigarettes voiceovers and rain-slicked everything are inherited from Spillane, Chandler and co., but theyâre so hand-me-down threadbare as to be rendered unrecognizable. Whatâs left is just lowlife burlesque aimed squarely at folks who lap up real-life tough-guy âtoons like Bukowski and bird-flicking, posterized Johnny Cash, a straight whiskey, no chaser hard-living fantasy for big kids who think 50 Centâs too black.
To steer my screed away from a blanket indictment of comic flicks, Iâll say that all parties involved in Sin City could learn a valuable lesson from Michele Soaviâs 1995 Dellamorte Dellamore (released stateside with the unfortunate title Cemetery Man), inspired by the Italian newsstand comic Dylan Dog. Against the gray, unappealing flesh on display in Sin City, Soaviâs film has the exaggerated sensuality of a long, dark Rupert Everett rubbing up on the âshe came at me in sectionsâ physique of Anna Falchi; instead of shopworn urban grime atmospherics (naked lightbulbs, exposed pipes, carefully trash-strewn dead-end streets, you know the drill), Dellamorte provides an individual, idiosyncratic combination of sinewy, nasty violence, wry despair, and potent goth romanticism. Itâs graphic but doesnât rely on that to be synonymous with grown-up; pulpy, but never mired in its origins. The only chance it has at getting proper attention might be if Tarantino remakes it. âNP