Based on stories by comic-book writer/illustrator Frank Miller, Sin City is set in a world so grim and brutal it makes ordinary nihilism look positively sunny. The series takes place in fictional Basin City, somewhere in the southwestern United States, a place where women are either strippers or whores, and men are cops or criminals. And we’re not talking your typical thieves or murderers — these are cannibals, serial rapists, and thrill-killers who are sanguine about their lack of morals. You tell the good guys from the bad not by whether they torture, maim, and kill lots of people, but by whom they pick.
Begun in 1991, Sin City was a hit in the comic-book world, where, for all the talk (some of which has come from me) about artists trying to deal with more serious, grown-up fare, there’s still a huge audience for adolescent wish-fulfillment. The combination of horny, big-tittied broads and tragic, screwed-up, but near-invincible heroes struck a nerve with the 14-year-old in a lot of men, and the hyperbolic sub-Chandler pulp dialogue gave it a familiar, comfortable noir feel. Director Robert Rodriguez, no stranger to ultraviolent fantasies (see From Dusk Till Dawn and the El Mariachi trilogy) reportedly has loved the series from the get-go, and, after preparing some test images that digitally replicated the tone of the illustrations, persuaded Miller to allow him to adapt the books, eventually making him co-director to ensure his vision was fulfilled.
Miller has thus far produced seven volumes of Sin City; the film features three of them. In “The Hard Goodbye,” Marv (Mickey Rourke) is a stone-faced bruiser who has one night of passion with beautiful Goldie (Jaime King) and wakes to find her dead beside him. Framed for her murder, he casually kills a handful of cops and any number of stool pigeons on his way to uncover the truth about who set him up. In “The Big Fat Kill,” Clive Owen’s Dwight helps his hooker friends Gail (Rosario Dawson) and Miho (Devon Aoki) dispose of some troublemakers’ bodies in hopes of avoiding a mob takeover of Basin City’s thriving prostitution business. And in “That Yellow Bastard,” Bruce Willis is John Hartigan, an honest cop who’s punished for going up against the city’s corrupt elite to save the life of a little girl who grows up to be Jessica Alba (now that’s foresight).
Sin City is, if nothing else, a fanboy’s wet dream. As promised, Rodriguez and Miller have adapted the books with a literal-mindedness never previously attempted. Every plot twist, every line of dialogue, and most of the visuals come straight from the comics. (It’s no wonder Rodriguez wrote part of the score himself — what else was there for him to contribute?) Visually, it works most of the time. Despite his crude draftsmanship, Miller’s high-contrast black and white compositions often have a rough, Spartan beauty that translates well to film, and the filmmakers convert the drawings into motion without succumbing to the static images that could have resulted. Indeed, many scenes are shockingly kinetic, the visual abstraction heightening the action by presenting it on a blank stage.
Sin City has provoked much talk of blank stages, as it, like last fall’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, was shot almost entirely in front of a green screen, with the backgrounds and props added digitally. The technique works better here than in Sky Captain, which was monotonously busy and soft-focused. In Sin City, the CGI is used for the opposite effect, eliminating any unnecessary visual “noise,” paring the image down to its essence.
Like many auteurs obsessed with their visuals, though, Rodriguez and Miller sometimes seem to have forgotten their actors. They’ve assembled a (mostly) great cast, expertly tailored to their roles, but about a third of them seem hopelessly lost. One problem is that Miller intends his protagonists to be mythic antiheroes, men who are part Hercules, part Jason Voorhees. Only Mickey Rourke, who’s helped by his bullish physique, rises to that level, seeming satisfyingly psychotic and dissolute while adding a hint of self-mockery. Benicio Del Toro also does a crackling good job in a smaller nutso role (maybe it helps to be a little crazy in real life), and, in their segment of the film, Clive Owen and Rosario Dawson both deliver performances that walk the line between spooky intensity and self-parody.
Another problem is Miller’s dialogue, which galumphs along even on the comic-book page. Listening to it spoken aloud, I was reminded of Harrison Ford’s famous comment on the Star Wars script: “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it.” Brittany Murphy and Jessica Alba have the worst of it, in underwritten damsel-in-distress roles for which they can’t find a satisfying tone. Even Bruce Willis, miscast as a dry, humorless character, seems robbed of his vitality. Perhaps the actors best served by the film are Elijah Wood and Devon Aoki, whose characters are silent. If anyone had told me a week ago that Wood could play a convincing assassin, I’d have laughed in his face, but damned if he isn’t costumed and filmed so that he seems genuinely menacing, albeit in a somewhat dorky way.
Miller’s Sin City stories are pretty slim — all plot and action with little depth, populated by archetypal characters who do pretty much what we expect. They are lowlifes who strain to do one noble deed, good-bad girls who sell their bodies but keep their souls hidden, and irremediably corrupt bastards who exist to destroy innocence and gloat over their conquests. The script slights their rare layers of emotion or contradictory impulses in favor of rushing into the next beating or dismemberment. The issue of honor — the only positive value ever espoused in the comics — is almost entirely absent. The film becomes a celebration of violence, a series of murderous revenge fantasies in which the protagonists often seem thrilled to have been wronged so that they might justify acting on their homicidal impulses. We’re in that action-movie world where a guy can prove his manhood only through violent action, and insecurities about manhood are all over the place. Not since I Spit on Your Grave have I seen a movie in which emasculation played such a significant role, spoken of or shown dozens of times — one character is even castrated twice.
It’s difficult to write about Sin City without trying to psychoanalyze Frank Miller, who is, in the end, the sole source of almost everything in it. In a recent Entertainment Weekly story, he said about the series, “The main parameter I had was it had to be fun to draw, because what’s fun to draw is fun to look at.” I’ve no doubt that decapitations, castrations, deformity, cannibalism, and sexual violence are fun for Miller to draw, but many people may not agree that they’re a real hoot to watch.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()