Sin City (review)

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To the Noir Degree

Man, they weren’t kidding when they called it Sin City. This is a vile place, oozing corruption from every orifice, where integrity and honesty in the institutions of authority have long since fled. This is a place where a man or a woman wielding a gun or a knife (and they all do) makes no threats — he or she just proceeds instantly to inflicting the worst. This is a place where there is no time for threats: you hesitate, you die. This is no place you want to be.
Now, it’s all unreal, which makes it a little easier to take. The stunning noirish dark shadows and spotlight brilliance punctuated with dazzling splashes of color (vivid blue eyes, bright red sneakers, a shocking pink car), the constant nighttime pall, the nuclear glow of spilled blood… they lend an air of the cartoonish to the unrelenting and horrifying violence, which is the only way you’re able to endure it. Played straight, it would be unbearable.

And yet, Sin City breathes with genuine, haunting power because it comes to us here and now, when the real world doesn’t feel so different from the stew of immorality and hopelessness that is Basin City. When Frank Miller created Sin City the graphic novel almost 15 years ago, the line about a hooker who “worked the clergy” might have been more sly than it is today, when criminal coverups and sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is actually one of the less sordid tales of the moment, and so has been pushed to the background. The two biggest stories at the moment here in New York are about 1) two former cops who worked as hitmen for the mob, often carrying out their executions while they were in uniform, and 2) a boondoggle of a football-stadium project that the majority of New Yorkers don’t want but is already a done deal (pretenses to “hearings” in front of boards packed by the billionaire mayor’s pals aside). When the U.S. attorney general condones and justifies torture, and vigilantes are patrolling the border with Mexico, and neo-Nazi kids are shooting up high schools, is there any doubt that we’re all living in Sin City right now?

So I can’t say that Sin City is exactly an enjoyable film, though it is an intense cinematic experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I was afraid, through the first third of the film or so, that it was going to be merely self-indulgently violent and stylized, a loud and aggressive exercise in looking cool and beating the shit out of the audience — metaphorically speaking, of course — like the Kill Bill films. (Ironically, Quentin Tarantino is a “special guest director” here; he shot only one scene, the extended one in the car between Clive Owen’s [Closer, King Arthur] Dwight and Benicio Del Toro’s [The Hunted, The Pledge] Jackie Boy, and it’s terrific: disturbingly funny and strikingly eerie.) It took a while for the humanity of the characters to sink in — I was, admittedly, distracted by the stark, high-contrast visuals. Miller, in his debut as a director, and Robert Rodriguez (Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over) worked together to create perhaps the most distinctive hi-def-video imagery in a feature film yet, in which you can feel the wetness of every tiny drop of the persistent rain and the desperation in every drop of sweat; it’s all so palpable it almost feels three-dimensional, like you could reach out to try to touch the images and find them right in front of your face. But the characters themselves are also stylized, in an über-noir fashion, existing in a realm beyond reality: they, men and women alike, talk in a clipped, tough dialect that Raymond Chandler might find excessive, and share their worn-down, worn-out feelings in hard-bitten voiceovers. And they all look like comic-book people: the men, particularly Marv, who dominates the early sequences, are hulking brutes generally found only in comic books; Mickey Rourke (Man on Fire) is all but unrecognizable under the prosthetics that turn his Marv into chiseled rock; the women all have legs ten feet long and impossibly buoyant, enormous breasts and are all, naturally, naked, or nearly so.

Miller’s graphic novel hasn’t been adapted — it’s been carefully lifted up off the page and moved onto film; there’s maybe never been a more faithful transfer of material from another medium to film as this one. Three of Miller’s Sin City stories — “The Hard Goodbye,” “The Big Fat Kill,” and “That Yellow Bastard” — are up on the screen here, and it was somewhere in the middle of the second one was when it all finally clicked for me, and I was enthralled. These are all tales of revenge and rough justice, and they flattened me back into my seat with that grim recognition I mentioned: that the world of Sin City isn’t so far away as we’d like to think. I was struck in particular by the women of Old Town, who feature in the second story: they’re prostitutes but they work for themselves, and they rule Old Town, having run out all the corrupt cops, the mobsters, and the pimps. And although I don’t agree with the underlying theme of the film — that except for a rare few, all men are alike, all men are predators of women — I sympathize with the independent attitude: a gal’s gotta look out for herself. There’s a moment in the first story, when Marv visits his probation officer, Lucille (Carla Gugino: The Center of the World), in the middle of the night, and he wonders how she can be a dyke with a body like that (she sleeps in the nude and doesn’t bother to dress to confront her visitor), a body that would attract any man. But it was only when I met the women of Old Town that I realized that it’s only Marv who’s clueless, not Miller.

So there’s this combination of spoiled innocence and justice turned upside down — the cops are bad guys and the avengers of the victimized outlaws — that leaves you stunned… and then it all gets turned around again in the final segment, in which John Hartigan (Bruce Willis: Hostage, Tears of the Sun, in what may be his best performance ever), the last honest cop in Basin City, sets out to protect a true innocent (I won’t reveal who that is, because if you’re not familiar with the stories, you may be surprised) from Roark Jr., the depraved son of a senator who is protected by his name from prosecution for his atrocious crimes. Nick Stahl (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) is absolutely terrifying in the role, particularly now, at the end of the film, because while he appeared looking fairly human, however inhuman his behavior was, at the beginning of the film, now he has been transformed into a hideous creature nicknamed Yellow Bastard, a nightmarish figure that is perversion personified. It’s one of the most disgusting, most sickening things I think I’ve ever seen in a movie.

And it’s what we’re left with as Sin City ends: the baseness of evil, and the spark of hope and kindness and rightness that is Hartigan… and the ironic way that Hartigan seeks to preserve the little bit of good in Basin City. It’s depressing, and it’s miserable. And it’s thoroughly exhilarating to see a film like this one not prettying up the nastiness of the world, just acknowledging it head-on and laying it uncomfortably bare.

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