Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, Brittany Murphy, Elijah Wood
This is the vilest, most disgusting and most violent film I've seen in some time. It's also one of the most entertaining exercises in total stylization and pitch-black humor to ever hit the screens. The film's as entertaining as it is disturbing -- and as disturbing as it is entertaining.
Sin City is also a love it or hate it affair. And even if you love it, you might feel a little guilty (or at least in need of a bath) afterward. Those who hated it, really hated it. Indeed, my partner in movie-reviewing crime, Marci Miller, told mutual acquaintances that the movie made her sick, adding, "I'm sure Ken will love it" -- thereby proving that she's an excellent judge of character.
The thing is, I can easily understand being sickened by the film. Its catalogue of outrages outdistances even Tarantino's Kill Bill films, which somehow missed being quite as unwholesome as Sin City (which is odd, since Robert Rodriguez has always been more playful and pleasant than his friend Tarantino).
Early on, I lost track of the number of decapitations and dismemberments, but the film also boasts two castrations (strangely enough, on the same person!), pedophilia and cannibalism (you'll never be able to look at Elijah Wood as everybody's favorite hobbit again), as well as attacks on the Catholic Church, the judicial system and government in general.
The movie has been damned as misogynistic because it panders to the basic (and frankly, adolescent) concept that women in peril have to be rescued by stalwart heroes -- though, in this case, the heroes are magnificently unhinged. That's true as far as it goes, but this critique sidesteps the fact that the movie is an attempt to capture the feel of film noir, which is inherently on the misogynistic side -- and that the movie's actually more misanthropic than specifically misogynistic. Whether that absolves the film of the charge or merely makes it worse, I'm not sure.
But I do know that Sin City is a bona fide trash masterpiece. I've never read the Frank Miller comic books that the film attempts to duplicate. Despite the best efforts of my friends who are comic book geeks, I can't take any seriously literary genre that insists "arrrggggh" is a legitimate word, and I'm content to leave my comic knowledge to the days of Magnus Robot Fighter and 12-cent comics.
However, I have seen enough panels from the Miller works to know that Rodriguez has done a remarkable job of bringing them to the screen, and that's he's crafted a film that is far less willfully ugly than the source material, in terms of its physical look. At the same time, imbuing the panels with movement gives the material an immediacy that makes it more disturbing. On the printed page, there's a built-in distancing effect that makes the material not all that much worse than a nastier version of an old E.C. comic, or even an issue of Creepy or Eerie.
Moreover, the way the film physically humanizes the characters -- with the exception of Marv (Mickey Rourke) and "Yellow Bastard" (Nick Stahl, Terminator 3) -- also minimizes the distance. All that's left between the viewer and the characters on the screen is the stylized black-and-white (with splashes of color) imagery, the over-the-top events and the intentionally absurd, ersatz-noir dialogue. ("It's time to prove to your friends that you're worth a damn," one character says. "Sometimes that means dying, sometimes it means killing a whole lot of people.") And that approach may not be enough for many viewers.
Make no mistake -- this is some nasty stuff that would have been slapped with an NC-17 rating, had it been shot in color (because of all the gore), or had it been less stylized (because of the rampant nudity of the female characters).
Rodriguez's concept is as clever as his execution. He takes three separate Sin City stories and presents them in a vaguely interwoven manner that's much like a simpler version of Pulp Fiction. It's difficult to say how much of the film is the work of titular co-director Frank Miller (who also appears in the role of a priest), but it's clear that Rodriguez's primary concern lay in getting as faithful a record of Miller's comics onto the screen as was possible. And there's no denying that Sin City looks like a comic book come to life -- and one that perfectly suits the world of Miller.
A pretty world, it isn't. The film could be read as some kind of social criticism, but as such, it's pretty thin, not in the least because nothing in Sin City smacks of normalcy. The people who live there seem to have the city they pretty much deserve (bringing to mind Jack Nicholson's line about Gotham City in Tim Burton's Batman: "Decent people shouldn't live here; they'd be happier somewhere else").
If the movie has any depth, it lies in the parallel between Bruce Willis' upright cop, Hartigan, and Mickey Rourke's psychotic Marv. ("I've got a condition. I get confused sometimes. What if I've imagined all this? What if I've finally turned into what they've always said I would turn into? A maniac. A psycho killer.") The only difference is that the corruption that is Sin City has made Hartigan equally obsessive -- and coerced him into pegging himself as a psychotic child molester -- while with Marv, it's more of a natural talent. Both characters, however, have the same goals and the same capacities for extreme behavior.
However, it would be a huge mistake, I think, to afford the movie too much importance as anything other than a brilliantly stylized and wild ride through the most twisted stories you're likely to see on the screen this year.
The movie's sick-humor appeal is probably best summed up in the scene made by "special guest director" Quentin Tarantino -- a scene in which Dwight (Clive Owen) rides along with the nearly decapitated ("like a Pez dispenser"), yet unaccountably chatty, Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), whose smart remarks come out in markedly different registers depending on the position of his nearly severed head. If you can conceive of that as darkly funny, then you're apt to enjoy Sin City. If not ... well, you can't say you weren't warned. Rated R for sustained and strong stylized violence, nudity and sexual content, including dialogue.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke