171. SIN CITY (2005)

“It’s pretty damn weird to eat people.”–Marv, Sin City

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , , Quentin Tarantino (“special guest director”)

FEATURING: , , , , Nick Stahl, Jaime King, , , , Brittany Murphy,

PLOT: The movie tells three stories (with some common characters) set in the mythical Basin City: in one, a police detective risks his life to stop a child-killer. In a second, a brutal, mentally ill criminal hunts down the men he believes killed the only woman who ever showed kindness to him. A final strand tells of a suave assassin who attempts to prevent someone else’s accidental killing from turning into an all-out war between the cops, the mafia, and the self-governing prostitutes of Old Town.

Still from Sin City (2005)
BACKGROUND:

  • A fan of Frank Miller’s original series of Sin City comics, Robert Rodriguez wanted to make the movie as true to the book as possible: “a translation, not an adaptation.” The actual comics were used as the storyboards. The stories selected were “The Hard Goodbye,” “The Big Fat Kill,” and “That Yellow Bastard” as well as the short “The Customer is Always Right.”
  • Rodriguez shot the opening segment, “The Customer is Always Right,” in one day as a proof-of-concept to convince Miller that he could do justice to the art style. He then used that clip to convince actors such as Bruce Willis and Benicio Del Toro to sign on to the project.
  • Rodriguez insisted that Miller receive a co-director credit on the film, but the Directors Guild of America objected to the credit (they do not allow co-directing). He then decided to give Miller full credit, but Miller refused. Rodriguez then resigned from the Guild so the co-directing credit could remain.
  • Quentin Tarantino directed a single scene in the movie (a segment from “The Big Fat Kill” involving a conversation between the severed head of Del Toro’s “Jackie-Boy” and Clive Owen’s “Dwight”). Tarantino directed for a salary of $1 as a way to repay Rodriguez for composing music for Kill Bill: Vol. 2 for $1.
  • The movie was entirely shot on Rodriguez’s “digital backlot” (green screen studio) near his home in Austin, Texas.
  • Sin City screened in competition at Cannes and won the Technical Grand Prize.
  • Plans for a sequel (based on Miller’s “A Dame to Kill For“) were announced immediately after the film was completed; the followup feature was delayed until 2014, however.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: From the very first frame—a woman in a blood-red backless cocktail dress on a balcony staring out over a steel-grey city—Sin City‘s pulp Expressionism is consistently startling and poetic. Since we’re fascinated by the weird, we’ll select the first sight of the Yellow Bastard, the bald, satellite dish-eared pedophile killer dyed the color of French’s mustard, as our unforgettable take-home image from the movie.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A marriage between the mythologies of film noir and violent comics, Sin City‘s bloody tales are set in an abstract urban hellscape inhabited by invulnerable tough guys and rough sexy dames. They play like the lost works of Raymond Chandler’s alternate universe grandson, written to scrape up a few bucks for a bottle of booze while he was down and out in Gotham City. With a cast of cannibal serial killers, jaundiced pedophiles and ninja hookers, the adventures of the hard-boiled demigods of Sin City are as fantastical as its random splotches of color in a monochrome landscape are visually unreal.


Original trailer for Sin City

COMMENTS: Sin City earns its “recommended” label almost solely on the basis of its visuals (bolstered by some finely weird touches), and not for its Pulp Fiction-lite storyline or its juvenile visceral violence. There is a fundamental immaturity about this movie that panders to boys’ least subtle sex and violence fantasies, a movie where human emotions are abstracted into two-dimensional clichés borrowed from detective movies and comic books. But, there is also a genuine pulp poetry in the staging that lifts the finished product above its starting material. It’s got a relentless energy; it’s got star quality in the weathered faces of Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis, the boyish charm of Clive Owen, and a succession of desirable women (led by gyrating cowgirl Jessica Alba). And it has enough moments of strangeness to catch and hold our interest: Rourke’s face mashed by prosthetics so he looks like a Dick Tracy villain, a samurai prostitute, a back-and-forth argument with a severed head, a gun battle in a field of petrified dinosaurs. Sin City succeeds because of these purely visual elements, which transcend the story’s embarrassingly adolescent agenda.

The roots of Sin City‘s mythology go back to writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, whose 1930s detective novels like “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep” formed the hard-boiled basis of what would become the film noir style in 1940s cinema. Outsider detectives who survived by their wits, deceitful femme fatales, and double-crosses were common tropes in this genre, and the general sensibility was of a society in moral decay. Chandler, in particular, had a vision of his protagonists as fallen knights, masterless mercenaries who might use violence and deceit against their corrupt enemies, but who obeyed their own private moral code of honor and protected the weak. In Sin City, society, and its antiheroes, have fallen even farther into corruption. Themes of cannibalism, serial killing, the sex trade, and pedophilia never would have made their way into classic noir, but such perversions are the stock in trade of Sin City, which drops us into a ruthless world that is basically Hell on earth. So far as we see, everyone in town is either a freelance criminal, hired muscle, or a stripper or prostitute (the town does have one waitress). Honest cops are a novelty. The shadows that were creeping over 1940s noirs have enveloped Sin City; if those films were shot at midnight, this one takes place at 3 AM, while the good people of the world are all unconscious and dreaming. Sin City plunges its characters deep into cinema’s id, leaving its heroes dangling over the abyss by only the slenderest ethical thread: vengeance, the morality of violence. With shreds of faded gallantry barely intact, each of the three main characters—anvil-faced Marv, dashing killer Dwight, and Hartigan, the detective with the bad ticker—embarks on an odyssey of vengeance, each in defense of a woman.

Sin City‘s attitude towards women is a problem; it’s the feminism of a pre-teen comics fanatic who seldom talks to real life girls. On the surface, Sin City‘s gals, who pack gats in fishnet holsters, appear to be a much tougher breed than their 1940s femme fatale counterparts. But in reality all of the movie’s women are sex dolls in Frederick’s of Hollywood outfits, and their weapons are mere fetish items. Even lesbian Carla Gugino, who has a steady job as a probation officer, walks around in nothing but high heels and a thong (and a pistol). The idea of the hookers of Old Town policing their own territory and having autonomy from both the police and the mob is a cool concept, but the reality is these broads need a man to save their shapely, exposed asses when things get tough. Miho, a sassy samurai with dual katanas and a swastika throwing star, should be the type of badass who takes no guff from anyone. Yet, despite the fact that she could easily take down any of the men in the movie in a fair fight, she meekly takes orders from male outsider Dwight, who rides into Old Town to save the girls’ bacon because of his burning desire to save women from male predators—whether they need his help or not. The femme fatales of classic film noir may not have been good at gunplay or swordplay, but they used their cunning and sex appeal to beat men: they manipulated guys into fighting on their turf, rather than trying to beat them at dispensing violence. Those dames were worthy adversaries: Barbara Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth or Mary Astor could have held their own against Willis, Rourke and Owen. But for all their bluster, Sin City‘s women are only accessories for the men, busty MacGuffins used by males as excuses to launch their campaigns of apocalyptic vengeance.

To be clear, I don’t actually object to the testosterone-fueled Sin City treating its females as secondary characters, or positing that men are at their noblest when protecting women and at their creepiest when they prey on them. I’m not opposed to the display of female skin as eye-candy in movies, either (in  fact, I confess a weakness for it). The problem isn’t that Sin City objectifies women, but that it puts them on pseudo-equal footing with the men, then brags about how progressive it is. It gives the ladies a few tough-gal crumbs to keep them from complaining, but it’s really all about glorifying the obscenely macho. The story carries a similar cake-and-eat-it-too attitude towards violence. In keeping with its boyish mindset, Sin City is more turned on by violence than by sex. Its heroes (particularly Marv, a tank in human form) absorb comical amounts of hot lead and endure enough beatings to a daze a dozen Mike Hammers. When they get bad guys in their power, they are merciless in their verdict. Both Hartigan and Marv are fond of castration by bullet. Seeking vengeance for a slain angel, Marv resorts to a torture so gruesome that he has to knock his female companion unconscious so it won’t give her nightmares. Hartigan’s final revenge is equally brutal. The violence is extreme, but Miller uses a number of tricks to distance himself from the atrocities he’s committing upon his characters. Although we do see red blood splatters in the film, it’s almost always dried gore on the faces of our heroes—their badge of suffering. When blood spouts from the mutilated baddies, it comes in unreal, dreamlike glowing white gouts; except in the case of the Yellow Bastard, whose golden blood squirts onto Hartigan’s sleeve like he’s been was punching a plastic mustard bottle instead of a person. Of course, the two villains who receive the most gruesome abuse are not merely deservingly wicked, they aren’t even really human at all: the Yellow Bastard has been transformed into a literal monster, while the cannibal killer played by Elijah Wood behind glowing glasses has supernatural stealth and no recognizable emotions. He’s an evil spirit, not a human being. Sin City makes a deliberate choice to intensify its violence from justifiable homicide to outright sadistic torture, but by making the slaughter clearly fantastic and unbelievable, it refuses to accept the consequences of that choice. It’s the classic ironic pose.

Sin City is noir, but it’s noir in an adolescent, degraded state. Sin City is a movie made by grown men who never outgrew their love of comic books, but who lost their ability to enjoy them on a child’s level, and have to gussy them up in adult garb. Noir is artier than action comix; antiheroes are more grown up than superheroes. But, when you get down to it, the whole “Sin City” comic/movie complex is just about men sharing pictures of larger-than-life macho heroes battling monsters and saying, “doesn’t that look cool?” Fortunately for them, it does look cool. The overhead shots of brute Marv lying in a red heart-shaped bed with angel Goldie, or of iron bars stretching up to infinity as Hartigan lies on the floor of his cell in the fetal position, are elegant expressions of American Expressionism. If I had first seen this movie when I was in my teens, I imagine I would have worshiped at its altar; it’s fueled by ballsy style and raw, uncomplicated emotions delivered with the subtlety of a Mickey Rourke head-butt. As an adult, I find it more of a guilty pleasure. But, with all of its flaws there’s something enormously alive in this movie. Miller and Rodriguez point and say “doesn’t that look cool?,” and I have to agree.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…plays like a convention at the movie museum in Quentin Tarantino’s subconscious.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“Mr. Miller and Mr. Rodriguez’s commitment to absolute unreality and the absence of the human factor mean it’s hard to get pulled into the story on any level other than the visceral.”–Manohla Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“Grotesquely violent but weirdly beautiful.”–Robert W. Butler, Kansas City Star (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE: Sin City – Miramax – The distributor’s Sin City page hosts a trailer, nine clips, and the official Twitter feed

Sin City – The official Facebook page (hosted by Miramax) serves as a source for news and tidbits

IMDB LINK: Sin City (2005)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Sin City – Festival de Cannes – The Cannes film festival page includes links to contemporaneous press conferences and interviews with the cast and crew

Jessica Alba Interviews: Sin City – A three-way interview with Alba, director Rodriguez, and Benico Del Toro

DVD INFO: There are a million stories in the naked city, and there are almost that many home video releases of Sin City. The one for fans to look for is the “Theatrical & Recut, Extended, and Unrated Versions,” available either as a 2-disc DVD “Collectors” set (buy), or Blu-ray set (buy). These sets contain both the theatrical cut of the film and an uncut disc with nearly twenty minutes of additional violence; the “recut” version also allows you to access any of the stories separately. The ambitious load of extras include ten featurettes and two commentary tracks (one with Rodriguez and Miller, one with Rodriguez and Tarantino). The Blu-ray includes two additional features: an “animated comic book” version of “The Big Fat Kill,” and “CinExplore,” which enhances the commentary track with pop-up artwork and illustrations. The Collectors Edition DVDs come with one of four different slipcovers. The original single-disc DVD (theatrical cut only) with one short featurette extra is still available for bargain hunters (buy), and 2014 brought a single-disc Blu-ray (buy) with no special features advertised. There are even more versions out there, but we’ll close by mentioning that Sin City is included in a four-disc Blu-ray set from Alliance (buy) where it shares space with fellow cult movie The Crow along with The Punisher, Kick-Ass and Frank Miller’s solo-directing flop The Spirit.

The theatrical version is available to rent or buy digitally.

6 thoughts on “171. SIN CITY (2005)”

  1. I’m sorry, but I strongly disagree with this film’s inclusion on the list. It may have been singular when it first came out, but Sin City’s excesses and visual style has very much become the norm in today’s film culture. It seems that the vast majority of maninstream films have followed it’s lead and the market is saturated with comic book films that tries in vain to convince us how mature they are. You do bring this up yourself and I don’t think it’s style elevates it since that style has become so ingrained in our pop-culture.

    And last, by bringing the burrowed subtexts of film-noir up to the surface it actually flattens them rather than strenghten them. I wonder if the most radical thing a filmmaker could do today was to show less instead of more.

    I am rambling, but I think there are other films in the queue that deserves a place on the list more than this.

    1. No need to apologize, it would be boring if everyone agreed on every movie that made the List. Sin City is one I think will appeal to a younger demographic: starter-level weird. Fortunately there are still 194 slots left open for movies you may like better!

  2. Hehe, yeah. I think the only ones on the list I have a problem with are this and Beasts Of The Southern Wild.

    You do bring up many of my own hurdles with the film, but for me those overwhelms any positive qualities it may have. It’s also the film where Robert Rodriguez went from an interesting indie filmmaker into a hack who uses CGI to cover up his flaws. I’m not one of those people who believe that CGI is an abomination who is destroying film. It’s a tool like any other and it does open up new ways to make films that we couldn’t before. But the Rodriguez of the past was a filmmaker who was open to ingenious solutions to make films on small budgets, while now it seems he always takes the path of least resistance.

    Still, this is a well written review. A reminder of why 366 Weird Movies is one of my favourite film blogs that even if I disagree I still got something out of it.

  3. So much style for such an empty ugly movie. You know i don’t have much of problem with the pulp material these guys are trying to recreate but this mass produced, spiffed up stuff their using to pay tribute is totally repulsive to me. What a soulless work

  4. This really doesn’t belong here. There’s dozens of candidates that would easily topple this one. Hourglass Sanatorium for one…

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