‘Sin City’ impresses by commiting all imaginable sins

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Sin City
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
Written by Frank Miller
U.S.A, 2005

Every Friday during the month of June, the Friday Film Noir column will be taking a slightly offbeat look at noir in film. More specifically, films that embrace noir elements in their  own fashion yet are not from the traditionally recognized era will be under the radar. Enjoy!

The spillover effect can be a wonderful thing, especially when the subject matter is as malleable as noir. A good story about fatalism, characters either coming to terms with or foolishly fighting the inexorable downward spiral their lives are condemned to suffer, decent people doing questionable things for supposedly noble causes, others not investing in noble causes at all…There is more than one venue for such wonderfully depressing tales about wonderfully depressing characters. Since noir is recognized as a variety of storytelling which is visually arresting, comics (or graphic novels) also spring to mind, something author Frank Miller took to heart when he wrote his Sin City series, a hyper stylized, super violent version of an already stylized an violent genre. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before somebody came along to transplant what was on the page to the screen. That man was director Robert Rodriguez, with a little bit of help from Frank Miller himself.

Sin City the film takes a interesting narrative route in order to cinematically translate what was in the comic. Given that Miller wrote several different stories occurring in the same metropolis but which concerned different characters, rather than pick one, director Rodriguez chose to adapt three (four in truth, given that the trilogy has a bookend involving a recurring character) in a single movie. One involves a hardened police detective (Bruce Willis) as he tries to save, for the second time in his life, the same innocent girl (Jessica Alba) from the clutches of the sadistic, perverted son (Nick Stahl) of a corrupt senator (Powers Booth). A second sees a beefed up, career criminal (Micky Rourke) go all around town in an attempt to avenge the death of the one hooker (Jamie King) who was ever nice to him, a journey which sees him face off against villains as curious and terrifying as an influential priest (Rutger Hauer) and the latter’s demonic assassin (Elijah Wood). Finally, another has a vigilante gunman (Clive Owen) put an end to a crooked cop’s (Benicio Del Torro) reign of terror, which has reverberations on a city district literally run by hookers (chiefly Rosario Dawson, Devon Aoki, Alexis Bledel).

What Frank Miller, in his original comic series, and Robert Rodriguez, with this unforgettable comic book movie, have done is send the noir genre into another dimension entirely. At its heart, Sin City is pure noir, no question about it. There is, just as one example, a cop, played by Bruce Willis, who is beaten up on the inside as well as psychologically, yet remains persistent in his quest to assure the safety of a young girl, the older version played by Jessica Alba, even if it means confessing horrid crimes he did not commit as the fall guy, sustaining prolonged beatings from crooked cops, wrestle with the doomed love of the very girl he is trying protect, and pull all of this off despite a terrible heart problem. He has set out to do well regardless of the tallest of odds which starkly stand against him. In essence, he is doomed from the very outset because life, as dictated by humanity’s vile nature to consume and self satisfy without a care for the consequences (in a completely warped, stylized fashion here in Sin City) will not, and maybe even cannot let him win entirely. He may accomplish parts of his goal, but he will fail at one of them, either the girl’s safety, or his own. And that, readers, is an assessment of only one of the film’s three stories.

However, despite all of these ingredients, many of which should feel familiar to fans of the genre (certainly the overall sense of impending doom which permeates throughout this and the majority of traditional noirs), the intensity with which the aforementioned ingredients are swirled around produces a very special experience. The irony of the situation is, of course, that while visually the film is ostensibly a scene by scene moving reproduction of the source material’s individual frames, said original source material, in its own way, emulated the visual tones of the old noir films to begin with. The book is entirely in pure black and white, with the drawings highlighting contrasts whenever possible in order to make the blacks or the whites stand out even more than they normally would have. Granted, the film offers far more nuance in its colour scheme, with shades of grey allowing for a slightly more natural look (as natural as it ever will be in a film like this) Prescription glasses, shafts of light, bullets holes and even blood itself look astonishing in the film even though it’s all white, simple as that. The film brilliantly exposes how the amazing can be when filmmakers use the simplest of colour schemes judiciously and to maximum effect. This is not filming in natural locations and subsequently stripping the picture of its colour. Rather, Rodriguez and company opted, in every instance, to film the actors in front of a green screen and fill in the backgrounds, some of which look deliciously artificial, later on and accentuate the iconic images with pure white or black, the scene when Clive Owen’s character sinks into a lake of tar is a stunning moment precisely for the look. There is rarely, if ever, a scene which does not make one simply appreciation the visuals. Hyperbole? For sure, although this is one of the rare instances when such high praise is very much warranted.

Naturally, if Sin City is to be a a hyped up version of the emotionally, psychologically and sometimes graphically violent world of noir, then one should come to expect a terrifically violent film on all fronts. In that regard, Rodriguez and Miller do not disappoint in the slightest. Lovers of traditional noir should, perhaps, be forewarned. When it is argued that the film ups the ante, it truly ups the ante. The characters are put through a nearly ridiculous amount of physical and emotional pain throughout the film, with the villains clearly stating their cases and letting the heroes, or anti-heroes, know it and not letting them forget it either. Rape, torture,  and murder are all in a day’s work for the antagonists in Sin City, so anybody expecting the film to merely accentuate the visual look of traditional noirs might have another thing coming. The language is often foul, the motivations vile and and the consequences despicable for the most part, like men having their groins literally shot off or women being eaten by a mute cannibal. In some respects, the movie is almost a noir mixed in with some horror elements.

The cast, from top to bottom, do their best to fit the bill, even though not everyone possesses the acting chops to live up to the demands. While the likes of Brittany Murphy (sporting an atrocious accent) and, surprisingly enough, Benicio Del Torro fairing rather poorly, many of the actors feel right at home with the sort of characters each is asked to bring to life on screen. Bruce Willis is superb as the weather beaten cop who won’t give up an inch if it means compromising his principles, Clive Owen is cool as a cucumber, Micky Rourke is the ultimate homicidal hero (how often does one read or here that sort of a description?), Rosario Dawson is freakish and incredibly sexy as a warped out femme fatale and Jessica Alba, yes, the often criticized Jessica Alba pulls off a decent performance as the wide eyed, innocent yet mentally tough target of one grotesque looking and appropriately filthy Nick Stahl. Other have smaller if no less impressive role, like Michael Clarke Duncan as a sort of enforcer for the senator yet dresses up like a Nazi (on second thought, maybe that is not so strange), Devon Aoki as Rosario Dawson’s silent assassin and the inimitable Rutger Hauer in a tiny but memorable role as a dirty priest.

Clearly Sin City is not for everybody. Some, for example the noir die hards, may even decry its inclusion in a column about the genre. It is noir on ecstasy and so excessive, it might therefore be seen as a mere perversion, or bastardization of the genre. The simplest response is…so what? Sin City takes noir deeper into blacker depths than ever before. True enough, tt never has to go to such depths again, but as one, singular wild ride it works wonderfully.

-Edgar Chaput

  1. Edgar Chaput says

    @Bill: In fairness (and I fully recognized I am the pupil, the learner responding to you, the experienced master) noir in its purest form is when the films themselves did not know they were noirs, such films from the early 40s and all the way to the late 50s that tackled, in their own ways, everything you wrote about in your comment: the disillusionment, the paranoia, etc. Neo-noir is purposely emulating noir. It’s noir but nor ‘real noir.’ SIN CITY is ridiculously stylized and is plays out like it knows full well it is trying to be a noir. But is that not what neo-noir entails?

    That’s basically the intent of this month’s list of entries: an overview of films made long after the ‘pure’ noir era that reflect noir, but that cannot ever truly considered noir essentially because they know they are intentionally playing with the tropes.

    Don’t worry Bill, it’ll only last a month!

    @Jack: Thanks! The cast is very strong, save a couple of exceptions.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Teacher I am not (ask my students). I learn as much from you guys as anywhere else!
      You raise an interest point (yet again). Defining “neo-noir.”
      I think anytime you get into the “neo” business it’s a lot trickier than defining the original.
      I always thought of things like CHINATOWN, BLADE RUNNER, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN as neo-noirs. No, they didn’t catch the look, but they caught the heart — they were movies that, to me, had successfully brought the thematic essence of what noir was about up to the present.
      You’re defining SIN CITY as a neo because it emulates the traditional noir visual style.
      Since I’ve always avoided attending the hair-splitters’ convention, I guess I’d say they’re both neo-noirs, it’s just one’s a zebra with black stripes on white, and the other one’s a zebra with white stripes on black.
      And so, again, my friend, we are back in accord and the universe is safe from destruction!

      1. Edgar Chaput says

        Possible spoiler for later this month: interesting that you point to ‘Blade Runner’…

        Neo-noir is, as you write, tricky to pin point. There are undoubtedly ways to really stretch the definition and start including films most would not think of. Am I using Sin City’s visual allure as a major factor when I include it in the Friday Noir column? Sure, and I also get, and quite frankly admire, your comment about ‘getting the heart’, which Sin City emulates more than it genuinely possesses. Nevertheless, I personally adore the film and thought it worthy of inclusion, so far as its imitation of noir is concerned.

        The rest of the month will be more in tune, I think, with the ‘getting the heart’ more than getting the look.

  2. Bill Mesce says

    Edgar —
    So, we FINALLY have one we disagree on (although, as always, it’s a respectful disagreement).
    SIN CITY is a visually dazzling piece of work, no doubt about that, and it certainly understands the visual vocabulary of noir.
    But the feeling I get watching it (and it’s highly subjective, I grant) is of a film so in love with how noir looks and plays, that it doesn’t really have a heart of its own. It’s plot, it’s characters, even it’s look is more of a pastiche — a salute to noir tropes — then it is about something of its own.
    Noir was never about the look. Noir came out of a deep postwar sense of disillusionment, paranoia, an awareness of how easily things — even well-meant things — could go wrong and snowball from there. It sprang out of watching the aftermath of WW II which solved one problem and then created a range of others.
    It also came out of the collective consciousness of those millions of war veterans assimilating back into the mass audience who brought with them the truth of the war and of the effect of violence on men, and the idea that there may not really be good guys and bad guys, just a lot of shades of gray.
    SIN CITY, on the other hand, doesn’t come out of that. It comes out of a love of noir film (as, arguably, Miller’s comics).
    It’s like something a guy I know who used to work in TV in the late 1950s/early 1960s said at a panel I attended. He was asked about the difference between TV then and now. He said that on his first show — a hit and Emmy-winner it its day — everything the writers wrote about was based on something that had happened to them: kids birthdays gone bad, work anxieties, etc. He said a lot of current TV he watched seemed inspired by other TV shows.
    I’d also say that in so closely adapting Miller’s look, Rodriguez puts a distance between the viewer and the film old noir didn’t have. It is SO stylized, SO over the top, that it only reinforces its artificiality.
    I know there are a lot of people who feel otherwise, and certainly SIN CITY’s box offie suggests quite a few people didn’t have the problem I did with it.
    It’s an interesting choice, Edgar, and I think it was worth including. It just doesn’t do it for me.

  3. Jack Deth says

    Hi, Edgar and company:

    Excellent, well thought out and executed review!

    ‘Sin City’ remains the best transition of a comic or graphic novel to film. Not just for putting Frank Miller’s style into another medium, but for a cast who mostly volunteered and fought for their roles and bringing them to life.

    Kudos to Mickey Rourke for having less make-up and fewer prostheses applied than in his much earlier role as deformed, framed, smash and grab artist, Johnny in Walter Hill’s neo-noir, ‘Johnny Handsome’ and pulling off such a dead-on, memorable character as Marv. The cast, with few exceptions, look, act and feel like Miller’s creations.

    Especially Clive Owen’s Dwight, Bruce Willis’ Hartigan, Jessica Alba’s Nancy and Devon Aoki’s silent, dangerous, Miho.

    Granted, ‘Sin City’ may not be for everyone’s tastes. But for those of us who revel in noir on steroids. It’s a wild and wothwhile ride!

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