Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sin City: Film noir on steroids

When people talk about moral ambivalence in the movies, they’re often talking about film noir, a genre (subgenre, actually) that flourished in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. A paranoid, morally perverse world of terse talking tough guys and tougher women (more often called "dames"), film noir elevated pickpockets and prostitutes to hero status (Pickup on South Street) while corruption flourished in the highest, most pristine places. The air was thick with cigarette smoke, the streets were dark and rainy, and the shadows never as black as the protagonists’ souls.

The inhabitants of Sin City are dark souls, indeed, and the corruption reaches very high, into government and even the church. Its "heroes" are a scraggly lot. Most of them are good guys only because the bad guys are so much worse.

But the stories (there are several) and the characters (enough to leave you a little confused) are less important to Sin City than style. Based on Frank Miller’s "graphic novels" which had their roots in film noir, Robert Rodriguez’s film (with a brief sequence directed by Quentin Tarantino) is a visual knockout, a nightmare that might have been inspired by too many viewings of Night and the City or Dark Passage. Some of the best noirs are so intense in emotion and visual style that they are perfect for comic book treatment, and Sin City inventively rings true to Miller's comics and the movies that inspired them.

Filmed in black-and-white with occasional splashes of color, Sin City is set in a bottomless pit of corruption called Basin City where the prostitutes have a deal with the cops, most of whom are as crooked as the road to Hell. The characters are mainly archetypes. There’s Bruce Willis as Hartigan, the good cop whose bum ticker doesn’t prevent him from gallantly rescuing a girl held hostage by a sadistic pederast, a sleazeball given free rein by the police because he’s the son of a corrupt politician (Powers Boothe) whose brother, a psychotic cardinal (Rutger Hauer), holds the real power. There’s a photojournalist (Clive Owen) at war with a dirty cop (Benicio Del Toro) for the affections of a waitress, heroic hookers (led by Rosario Dawson), and a grotesque thug named Marv who’s out to avenge the death of a hooker because he’s grateful she shared the sheets with someone so unattractive.

As Marv, Mickey Rourke is made up to look like a more menacing double for the young Jack Palance (who appeared in a number of noirs, including Panic in the Streets). At other times, he brings to mind Kirk Douglas, but only after the dimple-chinned icon's encounter with a sadistic plastic surgeon. Marv’s story takes up the most time, or seems to because it’s the most satisfying. A powerful, seemingly indestructible brute with a heart, if not of gold, than at least gold-plating, Marv speaks in dialogue that would make Mickey Spillane proud.

"It’s a lousy room in a lousy part of a lousy town," he moans as he sits smoking cigarettes on the edge of the bed where his night of bliss took place. After he’s framed for murder, he explains his strategy for revenge: "This is blood for blood and by the gallons. This is the old days, the bad days, the all or nothing days. They’re back."

In Sin City, the bad days are back, indeed, and gloriously so. Like L.A. Confidential on steroids with a hit of LSD thrown in, it’s a bloody, violent, misogynistic movie that's not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach, and if you can't leave your political correctness at the door, don’t enter. The violence is more reminiscent of a Road Runner cartoon than anything from the pages of Raymond Chandler, but it’s more intense, and often extreme. There are castrations, cannibalism, dismemberments, and buckets and buckets of blood. But though it pays homage to film noir, it’s still a comic book that throws reality out the window like one of Bogart’s cigarette butts. Characters engage in heroics that might even make Batman shy away, and bullets are not nearly as lethal as they tend to be in life.

Filmed almost entirely against computer generated backdrops, Sin City is an original, one of a kind movie with an almost Twilight Zone feel. It’s as if Miller left his drawing board to take a nap, and his characters took on a more vivid life while he slept. Sin City is like an hallucination in which dozens of film noirs are stuffed in a blender, and the best parts spill out in exaggerated fashion. You’ll love it or hate it, but you won’t forget it, not this year, anyway.

Brian W. Fairbanks

Originally published at Paris Woman Journal

© 2005 Brian W. Fairbanks


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