Sin City. What to do with you?
On the one hand, it remains one of the coolest looking movies I’ve ever seen. Robert Rodriguez translates Frank Miller’s brutal noir world to a living graphic novel. Some of the compositions and lighting are breathtaking, like everything your brain imagines when you look at a beautiful comic frame.
The entire movie is shot against a green screen, and it’s pretty obvious if you’re looking for it. But if you’re just soaking in the comic book aesthetic, then it rarely feels too alien or fake — it’s all part of the heightened pseudo-reality of the film’s cinematography.
Of special note is the use of color. I can’t think of a film that better uses little flashes of color in a film that’s otherwise black-and-white and full of shadows (with the obvious exception of Schindler’s List). The red of blood; the rotting yellow of a creep’s decaying skin; the icy blue of a beautiful woman’s eyes; the flickering of neon reflected on rainwater; it’s pretty stunning stuff.
So that’s the look of the film, which I adore. And then there’s the flip side of the movie: the writing.
The movie’s anthology narrative is a big, inelegant blob. The four stories (plus an opening/closing stinger) are unevenly paced and of inconsistent effectiveness.
The stories get steadily worse as the film goes, though maybe I just grew gradually more disgusted with the film’s nihilism and gender politics (more on that in a sec). The opening story, starring Bruce Willis, is about the rescue of a girl captured by a high-profile pedophile, and it’s the movie’s high point. Meanwhile, Mickey Rourke is perfectly cast in the second story as dumb muscle-with-heart, and he carries that segment with his larger-than-life stature and gruffness. The third story, starring Clive Owen, has some moments, but feels a bit draggy.
The really problematic story is the fourth story, the second Bruce Willis segment, “That Yellow Bastard.” Here, the world’s nastiness and horrible treatment and depiction of women comes to a head. It’s basically nihilism porn — a world fucked up by powerful monsters that nobody can escape. Jessica Alba’s terrible performance does not help in the slightest. It left a bad taste in my mouth as the movie winds down.
The biggest mark against Sin City, indeed, is not the unevenness of the narrative, but the lens that narrative gives us on the world. Women are whores and victims and traitors, almost universally dumb and naive. Every female character of note is sexualized, even/especially the badasses. The men are either psychopaths (e.g. cannibals, rapists), or tough super-guy fantasies. It’s film noir taken to its least nuanced, most teenaged-fantasy extremes, tacky hardboiled narration included.
Sin City is a huge achievement, ultimately a movie I still love looking at enough to recommend to the curious, but only if you have a stomach for some bloated storytelling and despicable worldview. But hey, that’s film noir, right?
- Review Project: 2009 Top 100