Review: Sin City

Because I reviewed the sequel…

Robert Rodriguez, try as he might, will probably never be a great director, but he is at least a director capable of great passion and investment in messy products when he gets around to it. His greatest films (and admittedly, his worst, but that is what happens when we are in the company of a very personal director) are generally those which see him in full control, although Sin City is something of an exception. It is perhaps his best film, but saying that Sin City is one of Robert Rodriguez’s best films doesn’t exactly address the extent to which it is a Robert Rodriguez film. Certainly, it is probably the furthest from his traditional wheelhouse of any film he has yet made, largely because it is a trade-off of his own alternately candy-coated and drained-out latin-tinged aesthetic for the hard-edged noir of Frank Miller’s sort. Beyond this, while Miller’s garish chiaroscuro could only come from the heyday of the amoral 1940s or the dark and dreary 1980s (bleeding over into the early ’90s, when the Sin City graphic novels began in earnest), Rodriguez knows only the exploitation films of the 1970s and pop-and-fizzle children’s movies of the atomic ’50s and bubblegum ’60s. Add in the fact that Rodriguez, whether hyper-saturating them to the point of bursting in Spy Kids or muting to a tactile sweat in Desperado, is a director of color, and Sin City is defined primarily by the absence of color, and what you’ve got is a genuine experiment. But how close this film in particular apes Miller’s style – we’re talking lengthy recreations of shot-by-shot panels and direct copies from the books – begs the question of whether it really is Rodrigeuz’s in the first place.

Needless to say, this is something the director himself realized when he afforded Frank Miller a co-director credit. A show of good faith perhaps, or maybe a realization that Miller was on the rise in the mid 2000s, for good or (mostly) ill and that the name now afforded some clout. Either way, the results sparkle on camera, doing justice to one of the last noteworthy things Miller ever really accomplished before becoming an altogether reprehensible hack of a human being. Miller’s visual style – re-created rather whole cloth by the first purely genuine use of green-screen technology to animate a cohesive world that could not have been constructed through other means– is clearly the center of the film, and it’s a wholly effective style at that. Rodriguez keeps things moving breezily, but he privileges Miller’s framing more than he looks to transform it – there’s hardly a subversive edit or a notable camera movement to be found that doesn’t itself mimic Miller’s framing in the graphic novel. But then Miller is a co-director, and his work transferred to film is, if slightly less revolutionary these days, still pretty exciting and kinetic in a purely surface-level sense.

Surface-level, by the way, the film most definitely is. It doesn’t “do” much with the comic book noir sensibility other than read it to its sometimes comic, cosmic extremes. That’s not such a bad thing really; it keeps things at a down-to-earth primal level and gives the whole thing an oozy, poisonous quality that just begs to be roiled around. The whole thing hurts, cutting across the screen with its heavy visual aesthetic and sporting tooth-and-nail venom dialogue that just punches right in the gut. It’s a noir’s noir, and the truly notable thing about the film is the way it tries to push the noirishness of it to the most heightened extreme the genre has ever known without quite skirting self-satire. It is, at some level, an artistic reduction and elevation of the material to move past the last vestiges of realism and toward the true expressionist essence of the genre as it exists in the mind. Wielding monochromatic blacks like the pits of hell and whites as piercing and blinding as limbo, Rodriguez and Miller allow bits of color to dance about the screen when they need to, all of which personify and enhance the non-nuanced emotions and the caricatured, “adult cartoon” vibe of the piece.

And it is ultimately a rather fitting visual component for the film that has been made around it, and that’s really all that matters. Rodriguez at least deserves credit for doing more than any director yet to figure out how to recreate the world of a comic book on the screen, even if he adheres a little too close to the comic book to make it seem less like a film than it ought to. It is, at least, a genuine attempt to distance Sin City from every other comic book movie ever made, and to explore the connections between the art forms in ways that film seldom does. That the specific stories of this film end up working as well as they do is almost beside the point.

They do work though, or at least two/thirds of them. The Mickey Rourke starring “The Hard Goodbye” might be the best of the books and it’s a sterling debut on screen, with Rourke clearly best in show in the acting department giving one of the precious few notable performances during his fair weather acting mid period. Of course, Clive Owen fronting “The Big Fat Kill” with the smug discontent that only Owen can make seem honest and world-weary rather than standoffish and superior, is almost as good. It helps that this story is a pretty nifty little tale to begin with, and if not quite as wonderfully tight as “The Hard Goodbye”, a stellar little mini-noir in its own right. These two stories, composing the great majority of the film in terms of length, really sell the lost world of Miller’s noir. His art, and Rodrigeuz’s approximation of it, absolutely sells the sense of loss and decay in the environment as a manifestation of this world rather than a fascist put-upon stretched over a style by Miller’s mind. Even “That Yellow Bastard”, which has the unfortunate distinction of closing the film on its worst segment, is still a sight better than most of the belated 2014 sequel. Two out of three ain’t bad anyway.

Sure, even the good stories still aren’t the most nuanced of tales in their own right, but noirs exist in a world without nuance to begin with. On a good day, that is precisely the point of the genre; it serves as a nightmare of chiaroscuro modern society where the nuances and textures of everyday living are scrubbed away and only a nihilist vision of the core remains. People are siphoned off into their bare essentials, whittled away until almost nothing remains but a hellish, contorted variation on greed and self-serving, walking disaster. Not realism, nor a moral or honest reflection of the human condition, but a social nightmare where people are not multi-dimensional figures of complication and texture but wonderfully primal stick figures brought to life by the sheer commitment and passion of the filmmakers who create in their films fully-developed environments. These are environments of non-reality, of course, but environments that are so well-composed and vigorously scribbled into the world with cohesion and art that they create their own reality. They sell a lie with the sheer, oppressive force of their imagery.

Some of the images in Sin City– especially the few scenes centering Elijah Wood’s creepily mundane cannibal-killer – earn this luxurious parentage, giving us astounding bits of modern horror at their most abstracted. They revel in the sort of pitch-black energy that noir also found a home in. This is imagery we know not to be true, but it is so forceful that it populates itself with character and essence and feeling and history even when we know it to be a trick of the light. Exactly, in essence, like nightmares do, presenting a lie but selling the lie with such skill we can’t but accept it even against our better judgment. And Sin City is, if not great art or a great truth about a society, a pretty entertaining and well-crafted lie for the modern age.

Score: 8/10

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