Love the sinners?

Submitted by Janine on 10 June, 2005 - 6:42

Michael Wood reviews Sin City

Sin City is an adaptation of a popular comic book series by Frank Miller. Directed by Miller and Robert Rodriguez, with one scene directed by Quentin Tarantino, the film takes three of the comic’s storylines, each a story of rough justice and revenge set in the hellhole that is Basin City. Like the comics, the film is shockingly violent from start to finish.

Comic book films are the latest Hollywood craze but it’s surprising that it’s taken the executives so long to get to Miller, as he produces some of the most critically acclaimed and popular comics going and is credited with having revitalised the medium in the 80s.

The body count in this film rivals that of a Paul Verhoeven sci-fi film, and the deaths are all disturbingly inventive. The violence goes beyond the point of being merely gratuitous towards being almost ritualistically unpleasant. Yet the film is still worth watching.

Sin City is completely stylised, in every way. The world these people inhabit is quite literally black and white. All the men are gigantic and heavily muscled; all the women have long legs, huge breasts, and very little clothing.

It’s not just the appearance of Sin City that makes it an unreal, stylised and caricatured world. The morality of the three stories is completely overblown and exaggerated. Each of them is about some kind of justice being done, but always in a horrendously brutal fashion.

The people of Sin City cannot rely on the established law, so they serve up their own, often gruesome, variety of it. All figures of authority in Sin City are corrupt. The villains of each of these stories are, respectively, the political dynasty of Sin City, the Church, the police, and the Mafia.

Miller is famous for lampooning every opinion. Sometimes this just does not work. The level of detachment that is required is just too great. The letters columns of his comic are often filled with fans stating how much they sympathise with characters who are not supposed to be sympathetic – like Marv, a borderline psychotic.

This is an incredibly faithful transition from book to screen. The benefit of this is that Miller’s genius with characters, dialogue, and imagery, is right up there on the screen. He writes hard boiled monologues that Chandler would be proud of, although Philip Marlowe probably wouldn’t last 10 seconds in this town. However the ambiguity, brutality, and nihilism of it all are also all up there as well, for better and worse.

Miller is a great storyteller, and these are great adaptations of his best stories, but they may not be to all tastes.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 13/06/2005 - 15:17

Agree with much of the review but the most important thing this film left me with was a sense of what Julie Burchill called species general shame.

Adolescent males will always fantasize about sex and violence and horror comics - sorry 'graphic novels' reflect this demand.

There is however something profoundly disturbing when a small army of intelligent adults dedicate years of their lives to producing what amounts to a long trawl through the subconscious of a particularly nasty 14-year old boy.

Yes it's ridiculously stylised - but the tortures inflicted on the cartoon characters are still tortures that are inflicted on real people in real life.

In a bizarre kind of way it matches the Passion of the Christ in it's joyous commodification of torture - however Mel Gibson at least had the dubious excuse that he was making propaganda rather than just entertainment.

What excuse have Rodriguez, Miller, Rourke, Willis etc?

To describe it as 'heartless' as some critics have done is missing the point - this film is actually degenerate in the dictionary sense of the word.

Submitted by Mike Wood on Tue, 14/06/2005 - 14:35

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

First off I agree entirely with one of your points - the fact that they are referred to in the credits as "graphic novels" is fooling no one. They're comic books.

Secondly, I also agree that this is not the usual case with the Rodriguez/Tarantino film of being "all style no substance", as the film has definite moral substance to it. What exactly the message of it is, though, is a little bit vaguer.

When I say that the stylised nature of the whole thing mitigates against the constant brutality of it what I mean is that the morality of the stories is caricatured along with the appearance of the characters and their hard-boiled dialogue. It is, of course, obvious that Sin City is a completely fictional world. Miller is not attempting to justify, for the real world, any of the actions that the "good guys" take in the comics. He takes justifiable, or at least understandable, emotional responses and blows them out of all proportion. Or at least I think he does...

What doesn't really come across in the filming is the complete lack of detail of any kind in Miller's drawings. He is obviously not writing fully fleshed stories about reality here but instead giving very basic black and white (in every sense) sketches of morality tales. The tortures aren't inflicted on real people, they're inflicted by people who're caricatures through and through against people who're equally fantastic. The problem comes, in my opinion, when this isn't necessarily made clear.

No doubt a lot of Miller's audience are people who just enjoy reading about elaborate death and don't mind the occasional scantily clad woman for a distraction, but I don't think that's what Miller is aiming for. That doesn't absolve him from blame of course, as he hasn't exactly attempted to alienate that audience by explaining why they're missing the point. So generally I think Miller is trying to be more sophisticated than a simple homage to OTT violence, but the problem is that he doesn't always succeed.

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