Damn it Goldie. Who were you and who wanted you dead?
— Marv (Mickey Rourke), Sin City
Frank’s an insane man for drawing it.
— Rosario Dawson, “Behind the Scenes”
“I see a crazy calm, says the Salesman (Josh Hartnett), during the prologue to Sin City. He’s describing for his victim what he sees in her eyes, just before he launches into a poetic seduction, keyed to her sadness and vulnerability. But he might as well be talking about the film’s essential aesthetic, at once outrageous and graceful, hyper-violent and fabulous.
This combination is on full display in Buena Vista’s new, holding-pattern DVD of the film. That is, while we’re waiting for the super-special, multi-disc DVD version, we’ll be settling for the single disc, where the only extra is a paltry eight-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with “my character is” bits from the primary players and “we love our movie” testimonials by Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller (who describes his introduction to the project as: “This Rodriguez guy started bugging my attorney and then my editor and hunting me down like a wild dog and essentially I was seduced”), and (“Special Guest Director”) Quentin Tarantino. As he puts it, “This was Frank’s way to complete a complete universe, to go as hard and as harsh as he wanted to… I like the idea of creating your own mythology.”
This mythology is all about excess. Gaudy and gorgeous, the look is lifted pretty much whole hog from 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 absolutely right thing. He quit the organization and made the movie he wanted to make, with Miller.
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”), bodies beaten down (“You’re pushing 60 and you got a bum ticker,” Bruce Willis’ Hartigan tells himself), and perspectives ravaged by one bad knock after another. And they’ve got jokes, of a certain sort: rock-faced Marv (Mickey Rourke), soul destroyed by the murder of his one night’s true love, the hooker Goldie (Jamie King), pauses in his vengeful killing spree to ponder the lapse on auto design (“Modern cars, they all look like electric shavers”) or wonder about his own sanity: “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, pause over. Time to do it “his way.”
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 Gollum), and spawn of Senator Roark, which means he’s untouchable.
In pitting these monsters against one another, some more ethical than others, the film interrogates pop cultural titillations, traumas, and repulsions. Looking particularly at the noxious effects of seeing too much (Hartigan warns the child he saves, “Cover your eyes, Nancy! I don’t want you to see this”), the movie insists on the costs of violence, as spectacle and experience. Every storyline concerns men beating their chests, legitimizing their violence, fearing each other, all ideas that could not be more relevant. (Who knew that Rourke would ever seem relevant again? Here he seems born to play Marv, all wrecked lumps and dreadful countenance.)
You don’t come to Sin City for illumination or transformation. You come for reinforcement. The world is stark and unrelenting, revealed here in stunning CGI. 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. 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, Lucile (Carla Gugino), though her nitial appearance, wearing only a thong as she saunters to her bathroom and soothes the once-again shattered Marv, doesn’t arouse so much as it astounds.
Amazing bodies are everywhere in Sin City, girls and boys. But for all the yowza femaleness on display, the movie is primarily interested in complicating masculinity, that seeming bedrock of noir, graphic novels, and current world politicking. They look fantastic, but these guys are miserable. Even as they go forth to avenge their own or their ladies’ wrongs, they look exhausted. And no wonder: they’re up against wholly state- and institution-sanctioned villains, and the girls on their minds (especially those of Old Town) are mostly self-sufficient, or murderously mad when anyone tells them they’re not. Fish-netted Gail (Rosario Dawson) and heartless Miho (Devon Aoki) are both deadly accurate with assorted weapons. But like the guys, they’re undone by their reliance on conventional male power signs, not to mention a traitor within their ranks.
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 bizarrely 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.