There’s no trumped-up realism here. It’s more like a pure fever dream.
— Frank Miller
Mickey Rourke gets electrocuted, Bruce Willis is hung, Devon Aoki kicks ass, Jessica Alba dances on a pole. What else do you need to know?
The pulpy excesses of Sin City are gaudy, gorgeous, and in some corners, already renowned, as they are seized more or less whole from Frank Miller’s noiry graphic novel series. Indeed, the film’s dedication to its source is notorious in its own way: when Robert Rodriguez learned that DGA (Directors Guild of America) rules prohibited him from sharing directing credits with Miller, he did the right thing. He quit the organization and made the movie he wanted to make, with Miller and his friend Quentin (“Special Guest Director”) Tarantino. Fuck the man.
And long live the man, too. For, at the ghastly, desolate, silhouetted heart of Sin City, drawn from three of Miller’s books (“The Hard Goodbye,” “The Big Fat Kill,” and “That Yellow Bastard”) are men of all shapes and sizes, variously desperate, cruel, frightened, and ferocious, not precisely seeking redemption, but willing to take it. Their patter is hardboiled (“Don’t scream or I’ll plug ya”), their bodies beaten down (“You’re pushing 60 and you got a bum ticker,” Willis’ Hartigan tells himself), their perspectives ravaged by one bad knock after another. Marv (Rourke), face deformed and soul destroyed by the murder of his one night’s true love, the hooker Goldie (Jamie King), pauses in his vengeful killing spree to wonder, “What if I’ve imagined all of this” What if I’ve turned into what they always said I would, a maniac, a psycho killer?” Ah well, next cadaver.
The three major stories all concern revenge: Hartigan wants to protect Nancy, the traumatized kidnap victim he saves from certain grisly death (Makenzie Vega as “skinny little Nancy,” Jessica Alba as her grown-up stripper self); Marv seeks the annihilation of everyone even slightly associated with Goldie’s murder, including the cannibalistic Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer) and his Senator brother (Powers Boothe); and ex-con/ex-photojournalist Dwight (the supremely brooding Clive Owen), runs into trouble in the form of a rogue cop (there’s no other kind here) named Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), who gleefully abuses his ex, who happens to be Dwight’s recently acquired, huge-eyed waitress girlfriend Shellie (Brittany Murphy).
Distraught, ornery, self-critical, these heroes are certainly more “anti” types than straight-ahead. At the same time, their targets are unambiguous. In Basin City, the villains are outsized. The Cardinal and his spastically effective boy-toy assassin Kevin (Elijah Wood) eat corpses (and keep the heads as wall-mounted trophies, a detail observed by a victim-to-be). The cops who are purportedly mad about Jackie Boy’s death in Old Town, actually want to regain control of that lucrative turf: hookers in thigh boots and jangly chains run the streets without oversight by male pimps; they see themselves as free, and the undifferentiated cops see them as money to be made. And poor Hartigan is up against a re-engineered child molester, now literally a Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl as a spitefully rejiggered sort of Gollum), and spawn of Senator Roark, which means he’s just about untouchable, at least by anyone who plans to stay alive.
On some level, the film is about looking — long and hard — at pop culture, those self-reflections that are most titillating, traumatizing, and repulsive. And the film is quite aware of what’s at issue here, the pain of looking and the cost of not looking. As Hartigan warns the child he saves, “Cover your eyes, Nancy! I don’t want you to see this.” Its panics and calamities are dazzling, its reinventions less straight-up new than innovations on themes. But these themes — men beating their chests, men legitimizing their violence, men fearing each other — could not be more relevant.
So, while tales are broadly brilliant and colorful in their grand outlines, they are also familiar and repetitive. Strangely and maybe luckily, the players are as cartoonish as their parts, as if to redouble the excess and the irony at every turn. Mickey Rourke seems — very unnervingly — born to play Marv, all wrecked lumps and beat-down countenance, and Owen makes his own dour, battered beauty subordinate to Dwight’s devastation. And Willis, bless him, is almost his own comic book character by now, even aside from the scowl. You don’t come to Sin City for illumination or transformation; you come for reinforcement. You know how these things go, and the film delivers. The backdrops are stark (mostly black-and-white-and-gray, with splashes of color, in cars, neon signs, and blood), the guys brooding, the dames bodacious, including Marv’s best pal, the “dyke” Lucile (Carla Gugino, a long way from Mrs. Spy Kids), whose first appearance in her apartment, wearing only a thong as she saunters to her bathroom and soothes the once-again shattered Marv, doesn’t titillate so much as it astounds.
The exhaustive transliteration of Miller’s baleful graphic novel provides a nerdish satisfaction: the panels have become storyboards, and the film often lifts them as if right off the page, with actors shot against green screens and depth reduced to shadows and light. But movie offers other rewards. Primarily, it complicates masculinity, that seeming bedrock of the genre. Though these guys look like basic dark-comic-book heroes, they’re also quite miserable. Yes, they haul their asses into action to rescue or avenge ladies, the blondes in particular (Goldie, Shellie) incarnating classic “motivation.” But they’re sad too. Like, do we have to do this all again? This even as the Old Town girls seem at first self-sufficient: Gail (Rosario Dawson) and Miho are (Aoki) deadly accurate with assorted weapons. Like the guys, though, they’re undone by a traitor within their ranks, and so need a little help from Gail’s ex, Dwight. (The cross-referencing of exes and relations is almost enough to demand a chart.)
But the boys’ burden here is not just female or even moral, though they complain of both mightily. It’s more complicated, born of tradition, ambition, and inertia. These big lugs can’t imagine their way out of predicaments without the usual recourse to some version of balls-out violence or the always-gratifying sadism. Occasionally they make this load seem poetic (“This is the old days, the all or nothin’ days,” observes Marv, “They’re back”), at others frustrating (Marv again: “It really gets my goat when guys rough up dames”) or fun. As Dwight explains, “You gotta stand up for your friends. Sometimes that means dying. Sometimes it means killing a whole lotta people.”
But masculine prerogative is always a load. It’s painful and costly and seductive. Men are damaged no matter what they do — by betrayal, disillusionment, experience and revelation. And that’s the story of Sin City, the one it tells insistently, horrifically, and over and over again. It’s hard to be a boy.