A lot of times, we throw the expression “comic book movie” around a little too loosely. Spider-Man 2, for instance, is a movie about a comic book hero, but it doesn’t necessarily look like what’s actually on the printed page. Sin City, on the other hand, is a movie that really does look like a comic book (excuse me - graphic novel) come to life on a screen. Simply on a visual level, the film is mind-blowing. I was in awe of the style from beginning to end. This is not just a visual spectacle, though; Sin City uses its groundbreaking images to enhance the themes it deals with. The resulting package is nothing short of amazing.
Because it’s based on three books from Frank Miller’s series set in the fictional town of Basin City, the film is kind of Pulp Fiction-esque; there is a trilogy of stories with characters who occasionally intersect. The first story features Mickey Rourke as Marv, a hulking, facially scarred guy who shares a night of passion with beautiful Goldie (Jamie King). He is touched that she would want to be with a hideous-looking thug like himself, and when she’s murdered, he sets out to find the person responsible. The trail eventually leads him to the home of Kevin (Elijah Wood), a sicko who kills women and eats their bodies. (He frames the heads on the wall like deer.)
The second story revolves around Dwight (Clive Owen), a former killer who underwent extensive plastic surgery to hide from the cops. He and his girlfriend Shellie (Brittany Murphy) receive a post-coital visit from her ex - the grungy Jack Rafferty (Benicio Del Toro) and some of his horny goons. After shooing them away, Dwight comes to suspect that they may take out their sexual aggression on some other woman, so he follows them straight into the section of town where all the prostitutes hang out. There, he meets up with Gail (Rosario Dawson), who helps maintain a carefully constructed status quo between the prostitutes and the local police. Rafferty’s arrival inadvertently creates a threat to that status quo, which could lead to warfare in the streets. The only way for them to avoid that is to essentially erase any trace of Rafferty ever being there. (I’m intentionally leaving out the gist of the story in order to maintain the surprise.)
The third – and best – story comes last. Bruce Willis plays John Hartigan, one of the few honest, decent cops in Basin City. (He’s also one of the only honest, decent citizens for that matter.) Eight years earlier, Hartigan rescued a little girl named Nancy Callahan from the clutches of a child molester. Ironically, Hartigan himself was framed for the crime and sent to prison, despite the girl’s protests. Little Nancy wrote to him faithfully each week. One day, her letters stopped, which worried Hartigan. Had the people who framed him found and silenced her? Upon getting out of jail, he finds Nancy (Jessica Alba) working as an exotic dancer. It turns out that she is, in fact, being hunted by the creepy Yellow Bastard (Nick Stahl), a guy with jaundiced skin, a light bulb-shaped head, and a pot belly the likes of which you will not believe. Hartigan and Nancy have an unlikely friendship that starts to border on romance, and he intends to save her as she has been the one pure thing in his life.
As you can tell, Sin City is set in a world full of serial killers and prostitutes, corrupt politicians and child molesters. The gritty, grimy quality of the story is not exploitive, though. Miller and Rodriguez are interested in exploring the sometimes ambiguous quality of morality. Consider Marv – a violent brute of a man who nevertheless intends to avenge the senseless murder of someone he cared about. Dwight, on the other hand, engages in multiple killings in order to prevent a massacre; he has to weigh two bloody options and decide who is better off left in power. Hartigan is the most conventional – an honest cop who wants to save the life of an innocent girl. Morality comes in a lot of different forms. Some people have an inherent sense of it; other times, morality is situational. Sin City explores the theme from three different viewpoints, managing to be intelligent and compelling all the while.
The film’s dark, CGI-heavy look suits the material perfectly. Everything is shot in black and white, but strategic objects are in color: a woman’s eyes, the taillights of a car, a bottle of pills. College students could have a field day interpreting the use of color in this movie. The eye is immediately drawn to anything colored, and it typically reveals some important piece of information or illustrates a particular emotion. Other times, the images are starker. There are long, dark black shadows punctuated by objects that shine an almost blinding whiteness. (Child molester Kevin is framed totally in black except for the white lenses of his glasses; the look is chilling.) There’s lots of blood on display too. Occasionally it is colored red but often it’s white, like paint being splattered about. In order for the film to effectively deal with morality issues using these characters and locales, it is crucial for it to create an entire fictional world and then convince us that it’s real. The visual look achieves this to perfection, allowing us to really feel like we’re visiting this gritty, grimy, dangerous city.
A stellar ensemble cast also proves crucial to the movie’s success. I really liked the relationship carved out by Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba. They do a fantastic job of bringing a little piece of purity to the otherwise dismal Basin City. Willis, Owen, and Rourke do a fine job with the voiceovers, which perfectly capture the interior monologue “thought boxes” that are commonplace in comic books and graphic novels. Mickey Rourke also gives his most vibrant performance in years; it’s a treat to see his portrayal of Marv. I have not even had room to mention some of the other players, like Powers Booth, Michael Clarke Duncan, Josh Hartnett, Alexis Bledel, and Rutger Hauer. They’re all here, and they’re all good.
Sin City is the kind of thing that’s right up my alley. One of the main reasons for going to the movies is to be transported to someplace else. Like another of my favorites, Dark City, this film immerses you in its made-up world. I love the look, I love the themes, and I love the way the actors bring the characters to life. Sin City is a dark, disturbing, enthralling masterpiece.
( out of four)
Sin City is rated R for sustained strong stylized violence, nudity and sexual content including dialogue. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.
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