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Non-Review Review: Sin City

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir. Today’s theme is “comics noir” – noir filtered through comic book panels.

Sin City is, I suppose, one of those films that lives or dies based solely on its visual style. Although the heavy hardboiled atmosphere compliments the stark black and white contrast, it’s those beautifully and meticulously staged images which come into the mind when one thinks of the Frank Miller adaptation. Based on the writer and artist’s collection of noir-themed comic books set in (Ba)Sin City, Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation manages to faithfully capture the tone and style of its source material. Being honest, it’s one of those movies which can’t help but catch your eye – it’ll just follow up with a punch to the gut.

That little red dress...

I think Sin City was perhaps the first comic book (or “graphic novel”) adaptation to consciously adopt the style of its source material. Of course, there were early films with strong stylistic directions – the gothic of Burton’s Batman comes to mind – but this style wasn’t necessarily drawn from an artist approach to the comic books, but rather the director’s fascination with the darker visual style. In fact, when the slate of superheroes movies arrived in the early part of the last decade (championed by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men), there was a conscious attempt to bring a mainstream sensibility to the films – the X-Men, for example, wore stylish black leather rather than awkward blue-and-yellow spandex; the Green Goblin was converted into a soldier suit; etc.

Sin City, on the other hand, is not based around the premise of taking a story which worked well in the comic book medium and converting it to mainstream fare. As far as director Rodriguez is concerned, design and theme are at least as important in plot and content. It would be easy to film the movie in colour in a real city, but to do so would make it impossible to replicate the look of the graphic novel. Various shots in the film line up with the source material almost perfectly – Rodriguez credits Miller as a co-director, so heavily inspired was the director by the author’s graphics.

The Right Rourke...

This approach was novel at the time. And, to be honest, it’s still unique today. Of course, the success of Rodriguez’s effort is perhaps the reason we’ve seen movies willing to embrace not only the actual content of comic books, but some of their stylistic touches as well. When Richard Donner adapted Superman for the big screen, his watch word was “verisimilitude”, the idea that this fantasy world should resemble the real world as much as possible, and it was this approach which drove most of the early superhero films (with Warner’s Batman franchise as the obvious exception). However, since then we’ve seen heavily-stylised adaptations of 300 and Watchmen, with even the upcoming X-Men: First Class looking like it’s designed to more consciously adopt the style of the comic books it draws its inspiration from.

For those unfamiliar with Sin City, it’s a collection of hardboiled noir vignettes written and illustrated by Miller, featuring a large cast of crooks, hookers, killers and other lowlives, set against the backdrop a stereotypically dark and gritty cityscape. Steam rises from every vent, the skyline is filled with skyscrapers, huge shadows are always cast – all the tropes one might expect are in play, but just amped up to eleven. This isn’t a place that could ever exist – nothing could ever look like this, nor be so corrupt. And yet it exists on film.

The grit on this baby is through the roof...

It’s a bleak place. Black and white, with contrast turned all the way up. Occasionally, there’s a glimpse of colour – just a bit. A striking red dress, a dancer on a stage, blood on a blade. Enough to catch the eye in a world so heavily desaturated. The movie was shot entirely on HD, and it looks absolutely stunning. It’s hyper-stylised to an almost ridiculous degree, but it works because it allows Rodriguez to get the shots that he wants. It’s almost like animation, but with real actors in it. The viewer knows that it’s fake – that it can’t be real – and yet their eye is drawn to it immediately. It looks absolutely beautiful. However, this is perhaps a personal preference thing. It should be easily to tell from the screenshots if this is the film for you.

The movie defines itself by its visual style so much that it’s almost hard to take in anything else. The story, such as it is, is structured into three overlapping vignettes – with an introduction and a conclusion to bookend. Each section figures a gritty narrator who rhymes off Miller’s bitter and cynical exposition with practiced ease. Sometimes the cheese is layered on just a bit heavy – “You’re an angel, you’re a saint, you’re Mother Teresa, you’re Elvis, you’re God” – but mostly it works. It helps that the three narrators (Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen and Bruce Willis) all have their own particular approach to the dialogue that makes it work. Rourke is rough around the edges, Owen is smooth and Willis is tired. It works.

Is his Hart in it?

The people who populate the city are just as tough as you might imagine. They aren’t necessarily well-rounded or fully developed characters as they are a collection of archetypes and associated clichés. Of one of the three leads, another remarks, “He just had the rotten luck of being born in the wrong century.” Miller’s protagonists are always (with the possible exception of Daredevil) exceptionally macho. This is the man who wrote “the goddamn Batman” after all. He knows what he wants to write, and he writes it well – the entire cast is populated with tough-as-nails guys who have deep and almost poetic inner monologues, but let their fists do the talking.

These are men unfamiliar and out of place in the modern world, where newer cars “all look like electric shavers.” These are men who feel at home with violence because it never changes, never leaves them behind. “These are the old days,” the gentle-yet-sociopathic Marv declares excitedly, as if he’s going home, “the bad days, the all-or-nothing days.” These are characters who play by their own rules. “No need to play it quiet,” Hartigan remarks almost relieved, “not anymore” – it’s a line that Marv repeats later on, “no need to play it any way but my way.” These characters don’t play along with the rules laid down by society (which are meaningless out here) – the only other option is to play along with a corrupt and broken system which institutionalise the violence and horror (“we could have worked something out,” a corrupt cop mournfully explains, as our hero stands firm).

Don't make a song and dance about it...

Miller manages to make these borderline sociopaths seem heroic by pitting them against true monsters. There are cannibals and child murderers (and those who cover for them) thrown against our “heroes”, which helps make them seem almost noble. Marv in particular comes across as something of a masterless samurai (a ronin), one of Miller’s favourite heroic archetypes. Mickey Rourke manages to play the lug so well that you tend to ignore the trail of carnage he carves across the city (“I’ve been having so much fun, I forgot to take my medicine”). He might massacre with impunity, but he has standards – he doesn’t “hurt girls” and he’s hesitant to harm animals. After all, this is a movie where one of the leads utters the line, “I love hitmen. No matter what you do to them, you don’t feel bad.”

These archetypes are played almost to ridiculous lengths (“kill him for me, Marv, kill him good”), and you get the impression that the creative talent are in on the gag. If the movie ever took itself too seriously, it would collapse under its own weight – it never descends to the realms of self-parody. It’s a tough line to walk, but the movie manages to avoid ever veering too far in either direction. Those looking for a bit more sophistication might go home disappointed, but there are worse problems for a film to face.

It's a Marv-el no one catches pneumonia in that weather...

On the other hand, the women don’t fare quite so well. While Miller’s brutish and thuggish men find themselves cast in the roles of heroes, his female supporting cast is mostly comprised of ineffective waitresses, dancers or prostitutes. In fairness, the prostitutes are shown to be well capable of handling themselves – that’s a pretty disappointing depiction of women. Despite the movie’s film noir influences, there’s not a true femme fatale among them. The closest female to that role is Goldie, a hooker who plans to manipulate Marv into protecting her, feigning affection. However, she ends up dead before the film starts, so that’s that, I suppose. She becomes a woman in a refrigerator (not literally, but the film has those too).

It’s nice, however, that Miller gives us a female parole officer (and a lesbian one at that) who seems to be aware of how things work (and seems to appreciate and understand her charge, and he respects her in turn). Merv’s comments on her sexuality are obviously intended to express his own inability to understand anything outside his own frame of reference (“She’s a dyke, but God knows why. With that body of hers she could have any man she wants.”) – but in the end it’s sad that she doesn’t really amount to much.

It's not quite black and white...

The whores of the city seem to be the only women in the film who won’t be victimised by men (all the others from dancers to waitresses relying on a strong male for protection), but even then it’s a male character who plays the hero of the piece – after the girls effectively get themselves into trouble. The impression is that the only dynamic people in the city are the men, and that the women exist just to cause drama for the men to resolve. I’m not advocating that we needed a token female character or anything, just that it’s strange that the women seem to exist mostly as plot devices to be threatened and exploited. This is a relatively minor complaint, but I think it’s a fair one.

The cast is absolutely brilliant. As mentioned, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen and Bruce Willis all headline sections of the film. The special edition splits these three plots out into their own extended mini-films and – although there are occasional points of intersection – the three work as independent storylines. All three actors handle themselves well, but Rourke is the standout. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the actor owes his recent career revival to his turn as Marv – a brutal but noble killer. Rourke was born to deliver lines like “sometimes I ask pretty hard.”

He has a black heart...

The rest of the supporting cast is similarly impressive. Michael Madsen pops up for a moment in a wonderfully effective role, and both Powers Boothe and Rutger Hauer play the corrupt siblings who control the church and the local government in the city (church and state, eh?). Benecio Del Toro also scores well, as does Rosario Dawson. There are tonnes more, and all are reasonably decent. It really feels like an ensemble piece.

Sin City drips with style. Robert Rodriguez has put together one hell of a fine film here, one with an arresting visual style. If anything, it’s a film which recommends itself based on the visual approach alone – even more than half-a-decade later, it still looks absolutely fantastic. It’s a beautiful piece of film which looks absolutely stunning in HD.

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon if you can. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

6 Responses

  1. I loved the look of this film and, of course, the wonderfully gritty world created by Frank Miller but some of the line delivery was a little hard for me to stomach. Willis and Madsen both struggled at times to make Miller’s larger-and-cornier-than-life dialogue work out loud.

    • I don’t know, I actually thought their clipped styles worked well. Not as well as Rourke or even Owen, but pretty good otherwise.

  2. Across the board everything is ratcheted up until its nearly drained of any connection to reality, which is why it works. The only thing that doesn’t fit into this aesthetic is Jessica Alba’s Nancy, who wouldn’t make any money as a stripper even in our comparatively tame world.

    • Yep, it’s the fact that it doesn’t look like anything that could exist that helps it work. And casting Alba as a stripper was a mistake – I remember reading that she was surprised on researching strippers for her role that very few were “doing it for the art.”

  3. That’s funny but doesn’t surprise me in the least. Don’t know why Rodriguez didn’t cut her loose after seeing the first batch of dailies.

    • I didn’t think she was that bad – or at least not any worse than she has been anywhere else. Alba is an actress who isn’t especially fantastic, and seems to have very poor choice in roles, but keeps finding work.

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