Sin City

2005

Directed by Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, with Quentin Tarantino guest directing one scene


Starring: Bruce Willis, Rosario Dawson, Clive Owen and Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Brittany Murphy, Benicio Del Torro, Jaime King, Rutger Hauer


124 minutes

Reviewed by Vance Aandahl


Rating (a 1 – 6 scale): 4



Crime comics hit their peak of popularity in the mid-to-late 1940’s. I was five years old in 1947 when the legendary artist and writer Jack Cole created the most infamous story in the entire history of comic books, "Murder, Morphine and Me,” and published it in the second issue of True Crime Comics. I was only a year or two older when I read the story, having found it while a buddy and I illicitly rifled through a tattered stack of his older brother's comics. "Murder, Morphine and Me” made a lasting impression on the play-dough of my young mind, and a year or two later I remembered it immediately when my father announced that according to the newspaper, violence in comic books was going to be stringently censored in the future because legislators were outraged over a panel from Cole’s story, a panel that had been reprinted in Dr. Fredric Wertham’s virulent critique of comic books, Seduction of the Innocent. In the notorious panel, Cole gives us a close-up view of an enraged junkie stabbing a young woman in the eyeball with the needle of a syringe. I didn’t tell my father that I myself had read "Murder, Morphine and Me,” and moreover, I carried with me an indelible memory of the eye-stabbing panel, and furthermore, when I thought about the panel, I didn’t feel the least bit seduced. My father had been raised as a member of the Norwegian Synod of the Lutheran Church. Although an apostate, he retained the style and mannerisms of a stern churchgoer. He was an old-school disciplinarian eager to blister my backside with the back of a wooden hairbrush if I didn’t obey his every edict, and one of his edicts was to forbid the reading of comic books except those featuring Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and the like.

Many, many years later I obtained a book about Cole that includes a reprint of "Murder, Morphine and Me” – the whole glorious story! It’s now one of the most treasured items in my little library of comic books and graphic novels.

This has been a long-winded introduction, gentle reader, but bear with me. I want you to understand fully what I mean when I tell you that watching Sin City on the big screen at the Denver Pavilions was exactly the same sort of experience that my childhood discovery of "Murder, Morphine and Me” would have been if my mother had slipped three hits of killer acid into the bologna sandwich I ate for lunch that day. I want you to understand that the sick pleasure Sin City gave me has its origins in a 56-year-old memory, but you must also understand that this primal, gut-curdling thrill was intensified greatly by the surreal, psychedelic filmmaking techniques employed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller.


What they have accomplished in Sin City is not ordinary film noir. Ordinary film noir, though stylized, is rooted in reality. Sin City takes a quantum leap out of reality into hallucination. Let us call it hyper-noir – insane, out-of-control, screamingly maniacal hyper-noir. Severe camera angles reveal a murky black and white underworld of smoky dives and garbage-strewn alleys highlighted with lurid tints of lipstick red, panther’s-eye green, bar-light blue, and a color I can describe only as putrescent, radioactive chartreuse. In some scenes the figure of a character is seen as a pure white silhouette against a pure black background, a melodramatic visual convention taken directly from comic books and graphic novels. The soundtrack alternates between sinister, jagged-edged jazz and deafening bursts of gunfire. The characters speak in an artificial language consisting entirely of snappy wisecracks, vicious threats, desperate pleas for mercy, and brooding, melancholy internal monologues – a kind of concentrated distillation of all the most memorable figures of speech in the dialogue passages of such novelists as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Mickey Spillane.


Do not go to Sin City unless you’re prepared to rub shoulders for two hours and four minutes with gun molls, pimps, thugs, vigilante hookers, hoodlums, scumballs, hit men, good-hearted whores, two-bit con men, crooked politicians, red-hot strippers, corrupt cops, paid-off judges, pervert priests, junkies, molesters, and hard-drinking, murderous, two-fisted anti-heroes. Avoid Sin City like a skin disease unless you’re ready to be swept up in a non-stop, rapid-fire orgy of violence, cruelty, drug addiction, gangland gunplay, knifings, blackmail, bribery, torture – every imaginable type of vice, psychosis, depravity, bloodshed, and sadistic revenge, all of it presented at a breakneck pace with frequent gouts and gushes of gore. Run from Sin City and go see Hitch or Ice Princess instead unless you have a hankering to identify with 1) a broken-down ex-detective (Bruce Willis) who has enough residual goodness left in his angina-wracked heart to sacrifice himself not once by twice saving a little girl from a politician’s son named Junior who enjoys raping and murdering children, 2) an ex-photojournalist with a new face and old fingerprints (Clive Owen) who inadvertently sets off a three-way war in which the heavily armed prostitutes of Old Town slaughter first a carful of twisted cops and then an army of mobsters whose leader has an artificial eye of solid gold, and 3) a huge, muscle-bound ex-convict with a lantern-jawed, broken-nosed, blasted-granite face (Mickey Rourke under five pounds of makeup) who kills his way to the truth during his quest to find and punish the slimeball who’s murdered the angelic dame he adored. There are some wonderful minor characters too, including the just-mentioned slimeball – a creepy-eyed cannibalistic serial killer named Kevin (Elijah Wood) who kills beautiful women, eats their bodies with a little help from his protector and fellow cannibal Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer), then mounts their heads like trophies on the walls of his house. I don’t know about you, but I was tickled pink to see Frodo gone bad.


The story lines in Sin City are taken from four tales originally created by Frank Miller in the 1980’s for his Sin City graphic novels, "The Hard Goodbye,” "The Big Fat Kill,” "That Yellow Bastard,” and "The Customer Is Always Right.” Two of the stories are broken in half and presented with lengthy amounts of intervening material between the two halves, and there are no signals to let us know when the movie is jumping from one tale to another. It seems fairly obvious that Rodriguez and Miller chose this format in order to emulate the interlocking puzzle-piece structure of the stories in Pulp Fiction, but the effect here falls short of Tarantino’s classic.

The problem arises from the fact that all of the stories repeat the same theme. In each, a hardboiled antihero with a dark past attempts to rescue and/or avenge a woman victimized by evil men. The deeply flawed protagonists in Miller’s underworld seem doomed forever to destroy themselves and all the other men around them in futile attempts at chivalry – a bit like poor old Sisyphus endlessly pushing that rock to the top of the hill only to have it roll down again. Because they’re so similar, all the story lines blur together, and the movie as a whole becomes as endlessly repetitious as Sisyphus’s punishment. Since I have maintained a lifelong devotion to adolescent male daydreams in which I risk my life in order to save a beautiful woman, I like this theme and didn’t mind seeing it rerun over and over and over again during Sin City, but I’m smart enough to know that most people are more grown up than I am and will find the theme puerile and its repetition tedious.


If you’re in the mood for truth and reality, if you’re hungry for serious insights into the nuances of human nature, if you long for a close, honest scrutiny of the human condition, if you crave high art or profound philosophy, then watching this movie will be approximately as pleasant for you as putting on your brand-new waffle-soled running shoes and stepping out the door into a juicy, steaming pile of fresh dog poop. But if your emotional development is badly arrested and there’s a thirteen-year-old boy lurking inside your brain, then nothing will please you more than a two-hour high-speed joyride through Sin City.