Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez
with Special Guest Director Quentin Tarantino
There’s usually one thing about any good movie that defines it – the look of Sin City is the defining factor -- undoubtedly. It would be easy to run out of superlatives in describing the stunning visual style of Sin City. Veteran director Robert Rodriguez, teaming up with comic book legend Frank Miller, grafted the Sin City [series] comic books’ design, panel by panel, onto the production design of the film. It was shot digitally in front of a green screen, with backgrounds added in post-production – it’s called “digital backlot.” See the illustration on the right – (top) comic book panel, (middle) green-screen photo-shoot, and (bottom) finished product. I had doubts about this method when I read about it, but I’m convinced – it’s a beautiful film.
Sin City is a reinvention of film noir – deep black and sharp white, with occasional accents of flaming, vivid color. For example, in the opening scene, a shot of a dark rooftop on a rainy night, everything is in black and white except for the red dress and lipstick of a character. Every scene in Sin City is strikingly designed in this fashion and beautifully executed via computer graphics, costumes, prosthetics, and props. The setting is ambiguous, period-wise. There are cars from as early as the 1930s, some current architecture and costumes from many periods, making the look of the movie impossible to date and beautifully stylish.
There are three stories – all based on Miller’s comic book series – set in crime-ridden Basin City. The stories loop around, with overlapping minor characters, in a fashion reminiscent of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Also like that classic film, the stories are pushed into the background in favor of fascinating characters – I didn’t particularly care what plot line these gangsters, corrupt cops and prostitutes were in the middle of – the characters are far more compelling than the stories. To put it another way, I didn’t get deeply invested in any particular outcome – all three stories involve a flawed male character who is trying to protect or avenge one of the female characters. I wanted these [somewhat] good guys to win out over the really bad guys, but those results were less important than my fascination with the characters and, of course, the visual treats that every scene delivers.
Of the three stories, my favorite is “The Hard Goodbye” featuring Mickey Rourke as Marv, a man/beast that’s bound to become a film icon. This is a huge comeback for Rourke – he’s perfect for the part – all id -- and the prosthetics (chin, brow, and nose) and digital effects combine to create a monster-with-a-heart. He’s on a mission to avenge the murder of a prostitute who gave him his fondest memory – a one-night stand – it’s sad but that was the best time Marv had. This could do for Mickey Rourke what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta in 1994.
“The Hard Goodbye” also features an extremely creepy villain -- Elijah Wood as Kevin, a serial killer who mounts the heads of his victims as trophies on the wall after dismembering and eating them. Kevin is not only sadistic but possesses super-human speed and can move about silently. You talk about casting against type… this is diametrically opposed to Wood’s sweet little hobbit in the “Lord of the Rings” movies. The battle between Kevin and Marv is just so over-the-top in a comic-book way – in this universe, detached body parts keep talking and interacting with the other characters.
The theme of Sin City, common to all three stories, is that a limited victory over massive sleaze and corruption can emerge due to the perseverance of one flawed but powerful, gritty character. Marv is that guy in “The Hard Goodbye.” In a series of wildly unrealistic battles with Kevin, he triumphs… sort of. Not a typical Hollywood ending, but an end to a conflict that leaves the overall status quo basically intact with marginal improvement -- through great sacrifice. Life, as a whole, will go on… “Old man dies/ Young woman lives/ Fair trade.”
“That Yellow Bastard” features Bruce Willis as a cynical cop with a heart condition on a mission to save a little girl from a sadistic (a common trait of Miller’s villains) pedophile, the “Yellow Bastard.” After saving 11-year-old Nancy from him once, castrating him, and being sent to prison on trumped-up charges, our “hero”, John Hartigan (Willis) spends eight years in prison and makes a painful compromise to get out when he realizes Nancy (played at age 19 by Jessica Alba) is in danger again. He tracks down the disgusting Yellow Bastard (an unrecognizable Nick Stahl in massive prosthetics and makeup) and they have it out in ultra-violent comic-book-noir style.
My one complaint about the film: too much voice-over narration. I grant you that some is probably necessary and that the traditional classics of the film-noir genre use voice-over narration heavily. I just don’t care for it. The idea is that I like to be right there with the characters – and having a third party standing beside me explaining what is happening or what the character is thinking detracts from the feeling of “being there.”
It’s interesting that although Quentin Tarantino was involved and the film is stylishly violent – consistent with his style -- Sin City isn’t chock-full of nasty, dark humor, Tarantino-style. That would have been fun, but it wouldn’t have preserved the feel of a film noir, nor would it have developed the theme of massive sacrifice for limited victory. There is some highly visual humor – severed heads with moving eyeballs, for example --but in no way could the movie be construed as a comedy.
”The Big Fat Kill” stars Clive Owen as Dwight, a man with a rap sheet (and a lingerie-clad parole officer) trying to go straight when he accidentally kills a dirty cop. This incident threatens the delicate balance in “Old Town”, Basin City’s red light district. A truce exists between the hookers, the cops and the mob. The tough-as-nails hookers run Old Town and don’t have to share the take with anyone. Again, the story is ok but the characters are absolutely fascinating.
Following the comic-book panels so closely for the design of the film was a bold move that paid off handsomely. Sin City is a masterpiece of art direction and an incredible technical achievement. The technique of creating a creepy, dark black and white world and then splashing on some bright color for maximum effect isn’t new but never before has it been used so effectively.
Sin City is an adrenalin-pumping carnival ride to a dark, nasty, and threatening but fascinating place. The stories are simple pulp but these extreme and outrageous characters were so convincingly presented and just so weird that I was riveted – I’ve got to see it again. And by the way, don’t even think about waiting for this to come out on DVD – this is a must-see in full 35mm splendor.
Photographs are copyright Dimension Films.
For more information about this film including detailed cast and crew credits, check out The Internet Movie Database by clicking here.