April 6, 2004

Deep, Dark, Delicious Noir

SIN CITY 4.5 stars
by JEREMIAH LEWIS,of Fringe, American Digest Film Editor

SIN CITY IS A DARK, DARK FILM that makes words like "gritty" and "hardboiled" seem like names for French perfumes. Whilst the film certainly deserves props for its heavily styled look and hinging storyline, what really drives it is the underlying noir-ish morality, a stark black on white narrative that interweaves three tales, originally culled from Frank Miller's best-selling graphic novels "Sin City", "The Big Fat Kill", and "That Yellow Bastard", each featuring a protagonist whose mission is to right the wrongs of a particular crime or achieve a moral center. It's a tough film to watch at times, featuring a level of violence, however stylized, that may give pause to even the most jaded and desensitized filmgoer. Yet like its famous noir forebears, Sin City depicts the genre's specifications with acute freshness and force.

The first tale is of big, ugly Marv (Mickey Rourke), a pill-popping palooka with the looks of a beat up truck and a brain below the waist. Marv's one night with a high-class prostitute named Goldie ends with her dead and him being framed for it. He promises to deal out justice to her killer, saying "And when his eyes go dead, the hell I send him to will seem like heaven after what I've done to him." --->

His indefatiguable thirst to "get the dirty sonofabitch" who killed the one woman who ever gave him the time of day, much less a night of pleasure, is a vision of hard one-liners and violence directed, first at the cops, then a young, serial-killing cannibal named Kevin (Elijah Wood), whose strange alliance with the most powerful priest (Rutger Hauer) in corrupt Basin City leads Marv to the top of the kill and a final, electrifying end.

In the second segment, Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) is a crazed and compromised cop who meets a grisly end at the hands of the girls of Old Town, prostitutes who defend their turf with violence and a shaky truce with the police of Basin City. Jackie's death promises to set off a series of deadly events, including the deaths of all the girls in Old Town, if ex-con Dwight (Clive Owen), with the help of Gail (Rosario Dawson) and Miho (Devon Aoki), fails to dispose of the evidence and prevents the chief of police (Michael Clarke Duncan) from reporting to the powerful and corrupt Senator Rourk (Powers Boothe) and bringing the full weight of the compromised law down on Basin City.

The final story stars Bruce Willis as Hartigan, a detective with a bum ticker who once saved skinny little Nancy Callahan from being raped by Junior (Nick Stahl), Senator Rourk's venal, raping son, by castrating him with a bullet, only to be betrayed by his partner Bob (Michael Madsen). Framed for little Callahan's abduction and rape, Senator Rourk uses all his extensive powers to aid Hartigan's recovery, just to have the satisfaction of sending him to prison. Whilst under lock and key, Hartigan's only saving grace is the letters from Nancy Callahan, who hides her identity and keeps him going in the long dark years of prison.

After eight years, the letters cease, and a woman's finger (Callahan's?) appears in his cell instead, Hartigan looses it. He confesses to the rape of Callahan, knowing they'll let him out for serving his sentence; he immediately searches out Callahan (Jessica Alba) and finds her a nineteen year old erotic dancer at a local dive.

Little does he know, his every move is shadowed by the Yellow Bastard, a ghost from Hartigan's past come to ruin his reunion with Nancy and in the process, create an unholy blood legacy for Senator Rourk. Hartigan must once again defend Nancy, even knowing the terrible truth; that even if he wins, he still loses...

Sin City is unapologetic, indeed almost gleeful in its flagitiousness. It is sexist (yet not misogynistic), and its characters and storylines could certainly be considered retrograde from the current feminist handbook of modern cinema. It defines masochistic pleasure in extreme violence, and through its stark visuals, is a vision of hell seen through moving panes of a comic brought brutally to life.

The crucial theme of Sin City is that justice serves many masters, not all of whom are on the side of the law. When the unsturdy structures of power become the machines and arbiters of fate and definition of obscenity, it is to the lost, the broken, the miserable, the misguided, the fools, and the beasts to right the wrongs, to hammer home truth and justice in their own way. This is clearly a holdover from noir fiction, in which the protagonist, often a detective of dubious moral distinction but whose code of honour rests with certain adages and quaint, yet reliable beliefs, is beholden to seek out and judge (usually with the barrel of a gun) the wrongdoers who have spoilt the purity of the compromised good--the virginity of the whore, so to speak. In a way, there are no good characters here (though Hartigan's good cop comes the closest), only dark and brutal survivours of the decay of Basin City. They wage battle with each other and flit from light to shadow and back again.

To exercise the point, Sin City employs another noir tradition: hardboiled violence, vigilante action, and the coming together of a moral point via violent methods. In each of the three stories, the ends are vengeance, prevention of bloodshed, and salvation. In each case, the bloodshed escalates from the violation of traditional femininity. In each case, a strong male figure takes charge and becomes the means by which justice is served. The imagery of the female form is the price paid for such return. Sexuality walks hand in hand with the violence of Sin City, and its awakening is tantamount to an explosion that leads to a grim, bloody, yet primal satisfaction.

If this is a vision of the future of comic book to movie adaptations, I won't hesitate to say I look forward to it with utmost enthusiasm. Quite simply, Sin City is unparalleled in its technical and artistic achievement, despite the telling nature of the 100% digital backgrounds in a digital theatre. Directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller developed the film closely around the frames of each graphic novel, at times mirroring panels with eerie similitude.

Its style is visually distinct not just in its contrasting Black and White stock, but the splashes of colour that employ without any words, the emotional intensity of a character or the visceral nature of the ugly underbelly of the city. The script is an alluring mixture of wise-cracking, hard-talking voice overs and intense action sequences of stylized comic book fame. Cars fly on and off roads with bouncy disdain for normal physics, villains stink, literally, of sin, and fights are accompanied by staccato bursts of digital debris flying without regard into the camera lens. There's even a score that seems tailor-fit for a fifty's style hardboil mystery comic. It is as if Mickey Spillane has been melded with James Cagney and pumped full of adrenaline.

Despite future (promised) installments of Frank Miller's moribund but fascinating world of sin, one gets the feeling that with Sin City, movie audiences have been given a first and unique taste of an explosive filmmaking style that will surely influence many future and lesser comic to movie adaptations. It is good that such a gritty first entry in the Sin City film saga is so memorable. It will give filmgoers bloody satisfaction, even if only vicariously.

Jeremiah Lewis of Fringe reviews films both at his site and American Digest. Lewis can be reached directly at jeremiah.lewis@gmail.com

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Posted by Vanderleun at April 6, 2004 4:29 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

What is the deal with Miramax? Every movie they've done seems to have at least one "Bible-bash" in it.

I've made a game out of finding it. I wait for the scene where a religous figure either rapes, steals or murders someone. Maybe they show a devout person being killed for laughs. Or they just riducule faith just on general priciples.

Watching for it is almost as fun as waiting for the Wilhelm scream.

Posted by: Mumblix Grumph at April 6, 2005 10:14 PM

I obviously went to see a different movie.

The Sin City I saw was a vomit-inducing excercise in sadism. The cgi backgrounds became stale and boring after the first half hour. The film tries too hard to get a film-noir "feel", and fails miserably. The best of the noir genre has dialogue that is easy to parody but immensely hard to duplicate, in that the hard-boiled characters don't say much but what they say is substantial and at times profound. In Sin City, at times the characters don't seem to be able to shut up but I've heard more profound dialogue standing in line at the supermarket. The film's greatest error is that, unlike the better comics and most noir films (even the bad ones), except for the character played by Bruce Willis, none of the characters I saw manages to convey any humanity at all.

In a word, garbage.

Posted by: Fausta at April 8, 2005 12:15 PM

I have roughly the same irritation with the dialogue, but I think it stems from the fact that most of it was lifted straight from the graphic novels themselves. I thought it was a well-known problem that written dialogue and voice-overs do not work very well when spoken in film, but it seems whoever wrote the screenplay either forgot this maxim or doesn't believe in it. If you haven't read the novels, I whole-heartedly suggest picking them up, and you'll see the lines from the movie work beautifully when used in a graphic novel's still-frame timing scheme. For my money, "That Yellow Bastard" (the Hartigan story) was the best fiction to appear in print in quite a long while, and the movie did an acceptable job of conveying the impact of the story--which about all you can expect of a movie made from an excellent book.

Credit where credit is due - Elijah Wood's portrayal of Kevin was incredibly creepy, and the scene in the basement of the Farm was chilling. Someone should win an award of some kind for the perfect translation of the source novel's horror.

Posted by: the Unbeliever at April 8, 2005 2:25 PM
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