Between the Spy Kids and El Mariachi franchises—to say nothing of his work on the original From Dusk Till Dawn—Robert Rodriguez has been making live-action cartoons for so long, it was probably only a matter of time before he made a live-action comic book.
Sin City is based on a series of graphic novels (from Dark Horse Comics) written and drawn by Frank Miller, and it is difficult to imagine a director better suited to Miller's pulpy, anarchistic style than Rodriguez. Miller may work on more mainstream titles from time to time—recent comic-book movies like Elektra (based on a character created by Miller) and the upcoming Batman Begins (inspired, in part, by Miller's classic Batman: Year One storyline) definitely bear his imprint—but the independently produced Sin City arguably captures Miller's sleazy, sadomasochistic cynicism in its purest form. There is a wildness, a craziness, to Miller's stories that bleeds—no, sprays—off the page, and whatever else we might say about this film, Rodriguez does capture that element very well.
Although this movie makes good use of the sax-heavy music and world-weary narration that are common in film noir, Rodriguez's mostly black-and-white visuals are influenced more by Miller's original comics than by any cinematic conventions. The blood—and there is a lot of blood here—is given the red spot-color treatment on some occasions, while on others it looks like bird droppings, a patch of white against someone's black coat. In at least one scene, someone stands against a brick wall and, in the shadow, we see not simply a darker version of the rest of the wall, but more of a reverse image—dark bricks with white lines between them. And the city itself looks like a monochromatic variation on those all-digital sets we saw a few months ago in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
But there is one crucial way in which Sin City, the film, is not like Sin City, the comics. Each of the original stories was meant to be digested on its own, but the film strings several of them together, and the cumulative effect of sitting through so many grim, morbid, hyperviolent tales is numbing to the soul. You can only introduce, and then bump off, so many protagonists before it gets a bit wearying. And that's before we take into account the sheer repetition of all the dismemberings, beheadings, and wounds to the male groin.
Some actors fit very well into this milieu, others less so. Mickey Rourke, of all people, is the stand-out as Marv, the ugly brute who is framed for the murder of a hooker named Goldie (Jaime King) who gave herself to him for free; he then tortures and kills as many people as it takes to avenge her death. I was startled and worried for Rourke when I saw the remake of Get Carter five years ago—it looked like he had taken enough steroids to kill a stable full of horses—but in this film, he's one of the few actors who wears prosthetics on his face, and the added bit of freakishness actually helps to make him more sympathetic and human.
Bruce Willis is also quite good as John Hartigan, who may be the only good cop in town, and whose stoic, years-long efforts to defend the life and honor of an 11-year-old girl are not repaid in quite the way he expected. After violently saving young Nancy (Makenzie Vega) from a pedophile (Nick Stahl) whose father just happens to be a powerful senator, Hartigan is hospitalized and sent to prison on trumped-up charges, all because he won't reveal where Nancy is. His wife abandons him, but Nancy writes him every week, for years. And then, one day, Hartigan's prison sentence ends, and so he goes looking for Nancy—only to find that she has become a stripper played by Jessica Alba, and she's in love with him.
Sin City is very much an exercise in male fears and fantasies. All of the voice-over narration is provided by men like Marv and Hartigan—it is their heads we get inside—while the women tend to be something "other." More often than not, the female characters are there because they need protection, though there is at least one major exception. In one story, Clive Owen plays Dwight, a guy who sets out to protect his new girlfriend, Shellie (Brittany Murphy), from an abusive ex-boyfriend (Benicio Del Toro), and somehow, along the way, he gets drawn into an all-out war between the mob and a gang of heavily-armed prostitutes. But of course, the sight of skimpily-dressed streetwalkers brandishing swords and machine guns is meant more as a turn-on for men than an expression of female empowerment; the point of all this is how Dwight's affections turn from the tremulous Shellie to Gail (Rosario Dawson), the psycho prostitute that Dwight calls his "warrior woman," his "valkyrie."
Female assassins of this sort naturally bring Kill Bill to mind, and as it happens, Rodriguez's buddy Quentin Tarantino is listed in the credits of Sin City as a "special guest director," and the film is populated by actors who have worked with both directors before—including Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs) as Hartigan's corrupt partner, Elijah Wood (The Faculty) as the creepiest Christian cannibal you'll ever see, Carla Gugino (Spy Kids) as a lesbian parole officer, and Josh Hartnett (The Faculty) as a gentlemanly hit man. (Trivia note: this is Rodriguez's first film since the original El Mariachi that does not feature either Antonio Banderas or Salma Hayek.) But Sin City suffers by comparison. Tarantino, perhaps despite himself, turns his pulp source materials into genuine works of art that pose interesting moral and spiritual questions, but Rodriguez, more often than not, is content to toss off films that look cool but offer nothing of any lasting spiritual benefit.
If there is one theme that comes through in Miller's works, it is a deep distrust of authority, whether of the political or ecclesiastical kind. In one scene, the senator played by Powers Boothe—whose brother, Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer), is deeply implicated in Goldie's murder—says true power comes not from a gun but from getting people to play along with your big lie. ("Powers" Boothe talks about "power"? And come to think of it, Mickey "Rourke's" character ends up going after a Cardinal "Roark"? Were these actors hired for the sheer punworthiness of their names?) In Miller's world, authority of any sort is the "big lie," but once this deception has been ripped away, there is nothing to take its place but pure demonstrations of force—and, occasionally, an act of self-sacrifice.
I'm still mulling over whether these acts of self-sacrifice tilt towards something redemptive or something more resigned and fatalistic. It is quite possible they point in both directions, but the world Miller and Rodriguez have created is so bleak and nasty it's difficult to see what lasting value any sort of redemption could have here.Discussion starters
- Marv says, "I love hit men. No matter what you do to them, you don't feel bad." Dwight also expresses concern that a potential victim of violence may not deserve what he's getting. Do the main characters in this film have any sort of moral code? Do they treat some people as more bad or less bad than others? Do we? Should we?
- Do you think some sins are worse than others? What are we allowed to do, if anything, to someone who has committed "worse" sins than us? How do we understand such things in light of what the Bible says about human righteousness, or the lack thereof (see Romans 2:6-11, 3:23, 12:17-19)?
- What sort of attitude should we have toward authority, whether of the secular or ecclesiastical kind? What about when authority is abused? What is the relationship between divine authority and human authority? Does authority really exist, in some sense, or is it a "big lie"? If it is a lie, then what do we make of God's authority (see Romans 13:1-7)?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Sin City is rated R for sustained strong stylized violence, nudity and sexual content including dialogue. There are frequent scenes of torture, dismemberment, and wounds to the groin. One story involves a serial killer who devours the souls of his victims with the approval of a Catholic cardinal, and another involves a pedophile who undergoes drastic surgical enhancement.
Photos © Copyright Dimension Filmscompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 04/07/05
Sin City is a comic book for grownups—specifically for grownups who appreciate film noir.
Film noir, as a genre, lacks a specific definition. Landmark noir films are characterized by a prevalent darkness, both visual and spiritual. The "heroes" find themselves in difficult situations, where they have to rebel against the system to achieve their goals; thus noir often focuses on criminals driven by necessity or do-gooders reluctantly employing desperate, violent, illegal methods. Authority figures are typically portrayed as corrupt. Most have a femme fatale—an exaggeratedly sensual woman who spells trouble for the conflicted protagonist. Villains often make an impression by exhibiting an air of amusement as they inflict cruel and unusual punishment. Innocent people are rarely involved, but when they are, they suffer greatly.
We're left with an abiding sense that film noir characters live in a godless world, alone to mete out their own messy justice. We wouldn't want to live in a noir world, but as an exercise in storytelling about what the world looks like to those without faith, it has its merits. For a thorough exploration of noir's history as a style and a genre, read this summary by Eddie Muller (GreenCine).
Chinatown is considered a masterpiece of film noir, and so is Blade Runner—the supreme work of sci-fi noir—but American film noir had its beginnings from the '30s to the '50s. Classics include Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon.
Sin City takes noir a step farther. It takes the conventions of the genre and exaggerates them to the edge of lunacy. A colleague of mine described it as "camp noir." Director Robert Rodriguez, creator of El Mariachi and the Spy Kids franchises, uses startling, stark animation with live footage, and achieves a different result entirely from last year's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or, for that matter, the original live-action/computer-animation blend of Tron.
The film, like Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, delivers three relentlessly violent, sordid stories straight from the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Hartigan (Bruce Willis) is a policeman with a bad heart who promises to protect a young stripper (Jessica Alba.) Micky Rourke plays Marv, a beleaguered loner on a mission of vengeance after the death of his lover (Jaime King). Clive Owen plays Dwight, who's in love with a blonde (Brittany Murphy), but works to defend women of Sin City's red-light district (Rosario Dawson, Devon Aoki, Alexis Bledel) from a corrupt policeman (Benicio Del Toro).
The problem with Sin City is not its genre. The problem is the way that it exaggerates the conventions—brutality, morally misguided heroes, monstrous villains, and sensuality. People aren't likely to come away talking about the ethical dilemmas of the heroes; they'll be buzzing about the sensationalized blood, guts, and sexuality. The film ends up appealing to a viewer's baser appetites, which contributes to ensuring that our own world is, ultimately, a little darker.
"There is one crucial way in which Sin City, the film, is not like Sin City, the comics," says Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies). "Each of the original stories was meant to be digested on its own, but the film strings several of them together, and the cumulative effect of sitting through so many grim, morbid, hyperviolent tales is numbing to the soul."
Chattaway describes this collection of stories as "an exercise in male fears and fantasies," and says that the theme of the stories seems to be "a deep distrust of authority, whether of the political or ecclesiastical kind."
He also compares this film to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, and finds Tarantino's work to be superior. "Tarantino, perhaps despite himself, turns his pulp source materials into genuine works of art that pose interesting moral and spiritual questions, but Rodriguez, more often than not, is content to toss off films that look cool but offer nothing of any lasting spiritual benefit."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a hard-boiled fever dream of highly stylized brutality, morbid humor and sexual imagery which—though intentionally over-the-top—pushes the envelope of even its restrictive R rating."
Steven Isaac (Plugged In) does not disguise his disgust with Rodriguez's film. "I'm compelled to note, first, that the way each 'hero' goes about doing 'the right thing' is beyond flawed. It's demented. So as not to prolong my own agony (or yours) by continuing to dwell on the sordid details of Sin City, I'll condense my conclusion to 10 words Bruce Willis says onscreen: 'There's wrong, and then there's wrong, and then there's this.'"
You won't get a rave from Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) either. "[The film] has no overall purpose, other than pushing the envelope just for the sake of 'art.' It didn't need to be made, and no one needs to see it. A mature adult who lives right and who has absolutely no imbalances or secret sins could probably watch it with a minimum of personal side-effects. Anyone else REALLY needs to stay as far away from this kind of material as possible."
Maurice Broaddus (Hollywood Jesus) gives Sin a more positive spin. "An exercise in style that threatens to supplant substance, the movie is visually stunning and demands viewing. If nothing else, it reminds us that our spiritual journeys are relational, not propositional (a matter of following or reciting a formula). The characters live out their beliefs, showing that even in Sin City, love, in the form of self-sacrifice, can be found."
On the same site, Matthew Hill says the violence "feels like violence for the sake of violence—and just because you can do it, doesn't mean you should." But he adds that the movie is about "people's undying sense that things are not right with the world. That we all, in fact, live in Sin City. And, going further, it's yet another story about our undying sense that we need to be saved from such a place, because we won't be able to do it alone. That we all need a knight in shining armor. That we all need God."
Most mainstream critics are so impressed with the cast, the blend of live action and animation, and the imagination onscreen, they say the pros outweigh the cons. But some of them find themselves dispirited by the relentless darkness.
Anthony Lane (The New Yorker) says, "We have, it is clear, reached the lively dead end of a process that was initiated by a fretful Martin Scorsese and inflamed … by Tarantino: the process of knowing everything about violence and nothing about suffering. Rodriguez is pleased to flash his hipster credentials, proud of the hole where his heart is supposed to be … "from Film Forum, 04/14/05
Sin City: Brett McCracken (Relevant) says, "If completely gratuitous, anachronistic serial pop art is your cup of tea, this film will be pure bliss. But be forewarned, the film is … full of every kind of violence imaginable, nudity, coarse language, and many other vices. Granted, the violence tries to be cartoonish in the vein of previous Rodriguez or Tarantino films, but there comes a point where even cartoon violence goes overboard. This gruesome picture steps over that line."
Kevin Miller (Joy of Movies) says, "Despite a veneer of redemption, Sin City is a film that glories in every blood-soaked moment of depravity it depicts. I'm still not sure why the film exists. To urge us not to trust authority and to think for ourselves? To showcase Rodriguez's considerable artistic and technical ability? To remind us of the sinfulness and depravity at the core of every human soul? I'm for all of these things. However, this film makes me wonder at what point the desire to depict evil accurately begins to create a fascination—in the filmmakers and the audience—for the very evil they are trying to warn people against."
But on the same site, J. R. Cillian Green says, "This film is one of the most incredible movies I've seen this year, and quite possibly the best comic book movie I've ever seen."
Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) observes, "When the movie ends, there is no redemption—only the continued sin of those who live on its mean streets. And when all is said and done, the Psalmist rules the day: 'They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.'"
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