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the pathetic caverns - movies by title - Sin City

eclectic reviews and opinions

Frank Miller's Sin City

2005, D: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino; S: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller

In a word -- yuck.

Easily the worst film I've seen in a first-run theater since Jeepers Creepers, maybe even since Gremlins. I'd really like to have those two-odd hours of my life back, and I'm writing about this flick primarily in the hopes that I can prevent others who might agree with me from losing that much of their lifespans to this sad genre exercise. Just so you know where I'm coming from.

Backstory: Frank Miller's work on Daredevil, and especially Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, was pivotal in ushering in the era of gritty nihilism that's dominated superhero (and increasingly, super antihero) comics for the past two decades. Miller added depth to his protagonists by emphasizing their frailties. Bruce Wayne worried about the brittleness of his aging bones, but more importantly, the comic dared to question just how nuts it was to dress up like a giant bat and scour alleys for human punching bags. Sin City, in contrast, abandoned any pretense of psychological realism in favor of an over-the-top all-plot, no-character noir pastiche stitched together from cliché imitations of Hammett, Chandler, Ellroy, and Thompson. When it worked, it was primarily due to Miller's bold graphics: blocky formations of solid or harshly crosshatched black and white with liberal sprays of red. But the plots quickly grew numbingly repetitive -- the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

The good news: Sin City is probably the most faithful live-action adaptation of a comic book ever made. It's been years since I read any of the comics, but I still recalled individual panels as the film paused for a freeze-frame. It's technically impressive -- the palette of the comic is digitally reproduced, and except for some moments where bandages or lips look comically like light sources, it's nearly seamless. Mickey Rourke is almost unrecognizable under the prosthetics that transform him into the craggy Marv. The film was so visually arresting that it didn't lose me right away -- but you could pick almost any 5-minute clip at random and see what it has to offer; the look alone can't sustain the 2-hour running time.

The bad news: the faithfulness of the adaptation -- coupled with the fact that the viewer suffers through a few years' worth of comic miniseries in a single screening -- reveals just how poisonously bad Sin City is, and what a sad disservice it does to the works it purports to pay tribute to.

If you turn music up far enough, it eventually distorts to the point where it isn't music anymore. The sounds merge into a white-noise wall of hiss. Sin City does that to the conventions of the noir genre. It cranks everything up -- the corruption, the sexism, and (especially) the violence -- until there's really nothing left. Miller puts things front and center that Hammett only hinted at and that even Ellroy soft-pedals. It devolves into a catalog of excesses. Decapitation? Check. Disembowlment? Check. Amputation? Check. Rape? Check. Pedophilia? Check. Disfigurement? Check. Genital mutilation? Check. Cannibalism? Check. The cumulative effect is numbing, and ultimately the movie's attempts to ratchet up the shock value become laughable.

Classic noir characters like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe were larger than life, but they inhabited a world peopled by ordinary human beings -- not just stool pigeons, cops, and small-time hoods, but also doctors, librarians, quiet people just trying to get by. The novels of Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy are grounded by implicit criticism of the societies they portray -- the permissiveness of the rich and the pervasiveness of racism are targets as much as they are backdrops.

But the fictionalized LA of Basin City isn't a society. There are no regular working stiffs -- there are only tough guys, tougher guys, and victims. The cops -- who play many of the victim roles -- are almost always literally faceless, hidden behind riot gear. The women -- who play the rest of the victims -- are nearly interchangeable Barbie-doll figures in a catalog of whorehouse theme-room outfits. And since women by definition can't be tough guys, they must all be victims. Even Miho, the hooker who (because she is Asian, naturally) is an expert martial artist, is invariably referred to as, "deadly little Miho."

Noir fiction has frequently been accused of misogyny. But here's the thing: women in Raymond Chandler's novels could either be good (admittedly rare, and essentially functioning as window dressing) or bad. But if they were bad, they were instigators, plotters, schemers. They were dangerous, in part, because they were smart -- or at the very least, cunning. They victimized men as often as they were the victims, and what made them bad was often their deliberate use of sexual power to control men.

In contrast, the women of Sin City are the very worst kind of arrested adolescent fantasy. They control nothing. None of them evinces more intelligence than the average pet. They submit to virtually any abuse until a more dominant alpha male arrives. They're allowed the illusion of strength (and sometimes an assortment of weapons), but their strength is never allowed to challenge that of the men. When something goes wrong, even if the women think they know what to do, they don't. They need a man to first belittle their efforts at independent thought, then do their thinking for them.

Noir fiction has also been accused of perpetuating the virgin-whore dichotomy: women on a pedestal or in the gutter, with no in-between. Sin City's resolution, which has a certain revolting novelty, is to make them all both -- almost every woman depicted in the film is a prostitute, and the rest are sexually available to males through violence. Age of consent is irrelevant. Women who commit the sin of confirmed lesbianism -- titillating though it may be -- are condemned to eventually die for it in bullet hails. But the whores are all also simultaneously goddesses who must be protected, and when the protection inevitably fails, avenged.

In fairness, I should note that Sin City's male characters don't fare that well, either. To a man, they're all sociopaths -- some of them have elaborate schemes of self-justification, and some don't bother, but their ruthlessness, bloodlust, and sadism are uniform. The nominal protagonists kill with no more compunction than the antagonists. Rourke's Marv comes closest to becoming an actual character, simply because he questions his own motivations. "I get confused," he admits. He can't quite admit to himself that his bloodlust is its own reward. Even when bragging how slowly he can kill a man, he wants to believe the torture is justified. Unlike everyone else in the film, Marv understands that his moral justification is on unstable ground. That makes him a tiny bit more interesting.

The men of Basin City need only the flimsiest excuses to go on bloody rampages, so perhaps it's perversely fitting that the film Sin City uses only the flimsiest excuses for soaking the screen in digitally enhanced gore. The plot has holes you could drive an ocean liner through. A felon is released as soon as he signs a confession? The bad guys spend years looking for a woman who's a star attraction in a prominent strip club under her real name? As the onslaught continued, I became increasingly convinced that the fundamental point was the pornographic excess of violence. It's dressed up in fancy cinematography, but it's still just about the gross-out. I think the Friday the 13th series was a lot more honest about what it had to offer: tits and stabbings. Sin City is artfully made, but it falls far short of my criteria for art.

One thing I found heartening was that the film eventually seemed to lose a lot of the audience. I heard moans of disgust, particularly when the former kidnapped preteen throws herself at her rescuer (by then she's 19 and working as a stripper, which clearly makes it OK, right?). But the man is still her elder by nearly half a century. And I've read that there've been walkouts in many theaters around the country. I only wish I'd had the gumption and/or sense to join them.

Finally, I wouldn't want this screed misinterpreted as any justification for censorship. In an important sense, I'm glad that Mssrs. Miller, Rodriguez, et al. were able to bring their undilutedly nasty vision to the screen -- especially in the current socio-political climate. I just hope they've drastically overestimated the audience for their work and lose their shirts.

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