Sin City
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 red—a bright, sparkling mustang red—the only color intruding on a panorama that’s 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 York–Los 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 Miller’s graphic novels. Faithful to the extreme, every shot and line of dialogue is a recreation of the comics’ frames and words (hence Rodriguez’s supremely magnanimous gesture to make Miller his co-director—a move that violated the Directors Guild’s one director-one film policy and precipitated his ouster from the DGA). Rodriguez is a great beneficiary of the graphic novels’ 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, there’s 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 district—until a cataclysmic event threatens to abrogate the truce between whores and cops. And then there is the film’s emotional and structural core: Marv, a barrel-chested, brutally scarred social outcast who’s a blend of brutal physicality, wry humor, and very few moral qualms. Under Mickey Rourke’s brilliant performance that is by turns cruel and touching, Marv’s 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 hooker—doling 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 voiceovers—one 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 Miller’s 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 film’s excesses. I think that’s 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 “Yeesh!” 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 book—the bullet hit an object in his breast pocket? Out and out parody. That is not to say that there aren’t moments of agonizing humorlessness—Dwight calling Gail a “Valkyrie” more than once—and no-one can deny the sobering quality of his violence, but the majority of Rodriguez’s 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 genre—the cinema seems to have been made for the gaudy patter of Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe and all the rest—but there was always something dissatisfying about the way it’s 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 isn’t meant to be a straw-man rebuttal, i.e. “film noir isn’t really black,” because that would be churlish. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of the limits in celluloid’s chemical properties and the imagination of various cinematographers. I can count only a handful of films—Touch of Evil, The Third Man, and perhaps Kiss Me Deadly—that are well and truly dark). Noir’s 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 Hammett’s and Raymond Chandler’s prose, the hyperbolic endgame for film noir that fulfils the genre’s potential. Noir’s 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 silver—or better, pearly argent, so near-white is its hue—occupying 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 Tarantino’s 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 horror’s 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, he’s 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 Rourke’s 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 cruiser’s front windshield or pummelling a phalanx of corrupt policemen.

In light of Frank Miller’s 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 QT’s long and pervasive shadow. Call it the übernoir answer to Kill Bill: a formalist exercise with heft, a heart, and a mind.—JC

That old story our fathers used to tell—of mom throwing out their priceless comic collection without permission—is 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 “Make mine Marvel!” partisan), the same way a budding multiplex cinephile might know his weekly box-office tallies. But my not-insubstantial collection still didn’t survive my adolescence—I 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 can’t listen to more than 30 seconds of Dead Kennedys nowadays, but that decision to trade in my comics was one I’ve 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 movies—comics are bigger business than ever, and stupider too! Robert Rodriguez’s latest is inspired by Frank Miller’s serial “graphic novel” of the same name. I add the ironic quotations because graphic novels—at least the slam-bang action variety—often seem to have as much relationship to real novels as “adult films” 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 Gibbons’s Watchmen, Miller’s gritty stories—first set in the purgatorial Hell’s Kitchen of Daredevil, then the deco slums of Batman’s Gotham, and finally on the streets of Sin City—are frequently pointed to as the artistic high watermarks of grown-up comic books. If all the talk of Sin City’s fidelity to its source material is to be believed, this speaks very little for the graphic novel as a medium. Rodriguez and Miller’s 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 Nocenti—a flagrantly leftist woman in an uptight, masculine medium—who 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 word—think angry walking boners with patchy skin and Army surplus trenchcoats Scotch-taping fireworks onto stray cats’ tails.

The story, if you have to know, combines three tales from Miller’s 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 (she’ll grow up to be Jessica Alba) from a pedophile sadist (Nick Stahl) who’s 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 names—Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, and Michael Clarke Duncan also pop up—most 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, à la The List of Adrian Messenger, and Sin City certainly boasts an aesthetic hook that’s firmly in gimmick territory. The film’s shot in black-and-white, but select characters and objects are rendered in bright color, reproducing the two-color scheme of Miller’s 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 “Cooooooool!”; it’s eye-popping in the same insidious way that a Maroon 5 song is catchy. Stahl’s sickie Yellow Bastard is a rancid shade, there’s a dash of crimson lipstick, and the copious blood most often comes flowing out in pure, ropy white, making the fresh-slaughtered look like they’ve 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 he’d 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 but… 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 somebody’s got to be. It would be hysterical if it weren’t 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 “disreputable” stuff—this is much the same crowd that congratulated itself for not flinching at Pulp Fiction—hacks 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 “isn’t an adaptation of a comic book, it’s like a comic book brought to life and pumped with steroids.” As to how this differentiates this from the vast majority of multiplex action fare isn’t quite clear; Miller, Rodriguez, and Tarantino (who guest-directs a car-chase scene in Sin City) aren’t doing a goddamn thing that the blockbuster hegemony hasn’t been doing for years—repackaging and domesticating the frightening, outré 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 “R. Mutt” signature on exploitation tropes. I’m pretty sure if you re-released Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Holocaust and gave Q.T. the director credit, more than a few eager to be “with it” dupes would suddenly find some kind of spry, postmodern undercurrent to all that vivisection. Maybe they’d 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 City—excessive scenes of a character tied to a chair and absorbing torture are the movie’s chorus—as something off the pages of D.C. Comics’ 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 Scott’s 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 film’s direct aesthetic forebears to be Alex Proyas’s orgies of grimy set design, The Crow and Dark City, the “cinematic” 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 they’re so hand-me-down threadbare as to be rendered unrecognizable. What’s left is just lowlife burlesque aimed squarely at folks who lap up real-life tough-guy ‘toons like Bukowski and bird-flicking, posterized Johnny Cash, a straight whiskey, no chaser hard-living fantasy for big kids who think 50 Cent’s too black.

To steer my screed away from a blanket indictment of comic flicks, I’ll say that all parties involved in Sin City could learn a valuable lesson from Michele Soavi’s 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, Soavi’s film has the exaggerated sensuality of a long, dark Rupert Everett rubbing up on the “she came at me in sections” 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. It’s graphic but doesn’t 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. —NP