Night and the city
Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, based on the comic-book series by Frank Miller, is his best movie yet. Hell on wheels. Visual dynamite.
Miller’s graphic novels are a synthesis of several strains of popular culture. In them you can see Hollywood film noir of the 1940s and ’50s, for example, and the violent 1950s crime and horror comics that brought the wrath of Congress down on the comic-book industry. They also reflect the postmodern cool exemplified by Quentin Tarantino’s movies, although Miller’s books predate Tarantino’s career. (Tarantino is even credited on the film as “special guest director,” and although his exact contribution isn’t identified, it feels like a perfect fit.)
Miller’s books take place in Basin City, a corrupt and sordid metropolis where the sun never shines. Literally—the stories all seem to take place on a stygian moonless night lit only by the harsh glare of auto headlights, neon signs and flashes of gunfire. The characters speak a fluent pastiche of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett (“Walk down the right back alley, and you can find anything in Sin City”), and the hard-boiled dialogue is punctuated with outbursts of violence accompanied by sharp, angular comic-book onomatopoeia: WHUMPP! POOM! KASH! SKREEEECH!
Each of Miller’s volumes tells a self-contained story, but characters—and even scenes—overlap; in the background of one scene, we’ll “overhear” a conversation from another story entirely. They have titles like The Hard Goodbye, The Big Fat Kill and That Yellow Bastard—which, as it happens, are the three titles that Rodriguez and Miller have adapted into Sin City.
In one story, a big ugly brute named Marv (played by an unrecognizable Mickey Rourke) wakes up in bed next to his new lover to find her murdered and himself framed for the crime. Marv isn’t too bright, but he knows he owes it to the dead woman to avenge her. Another story takes place in Old Town, the district of Sin City where the streets are owned and ruled by its prostitutes; a wanted man (Clive Owen) helps the hookers out when they kill a man who turns out to be an undercover cop, threatening to upset the uneasy truce they have with the city’s crooked police force.
Bookending these two stories is one involving Hartigan (Bruce Willis), an honest cop on the brink of retirement who tries to save 11-year-old Nancy Callahan (Makenzie Vega) from the clutches of a serial child-killer (Nick Stahl). He succeeds, but eight years later, he learns that Nancy (now grown into Jessica Alba) isn’t yet out of danger.
Those are the bare-bones stories, but Rodriguez and Miller (who share co-director credit on the film, to the reported consternation of the Directors Guild of America) both understand that film noir is a matter of style and atmosphere rather than plot—even the best of classic films noir (Laura, Out of the Past, The Big Sleep, etc.) have stories that don’t always stand up to close inspection. What matters is the attitude, the struggle of characters trapped in a rotten, hostile world filled with betrayal and abuses of power. Survival, and even redemption, may be possible, but it’s far from certain, and it almost always comes at a terrible price.
Rodriguez (who served here, as he usually does, as his own cinematographer and editor) finds the perfect film equivalent of Miller’s stark, virile graphics. Sin City is photographed in harsh black and white, with occasional flashes of color—the red of blood, the urine-like yellow of a villain’s pitted skin, the gold of a stripper’s blond hair. It makes Sin City the most visually arresting movie of the year; Rodriguez’s style is such a close match that reading Miller’s books is like perusing storyboards for the film.
Film noir has always tested the limits of conventional concepts of decency, and Sin City is no exception; hints (and sometimes more than hints) of cannibalism, necrophilia, sadism and pedophilia attest to how elastic those limits have become since noir’s 1940s heyday. Rodriguez and Miller and their all-star cast have made a movie that looks like something created by Dick Tracy’s evil cousin. Miller’s fans will love it; others will find it unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.