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April 5, 2005

Sin is in: Comic book yields not-so-comic adaptation

How long can one cook an egg?

Forgive the non sequitur, but it seems appropriate to begin a review of Sin City with metaphorical language.

This is a big, bold film noir. Having just enjoyed Frank Miller's graphic novels—upon which Sin City is closely based—I must admit that I am writing about this film with something less than ideal critical distance. Fanboy/girl or not, though, this film is sure to make any viewer grin with the sheer two-to-three-color vivacity of it all. I mean, shoot, when a film stars Michael Madsen alone, one is in for an exaggerated ride. And Madsen is but a bit character in this presentation of the worst and best that the modern world has to offer.

They're mostly here, Miller's lugs, thugs, hustlers, and cops. They take morally extreme positions in their dealings, which figures in a predominantly black-and-white film. The plot deals with three intertwined stories from Basin City, one of those nowhere/everywhere liminal spaces favored by comics, a space where nothing out of the ordinary happens—except for all the time.

We have the retiring cop Hartigan (Bruce Willis), looking to save one last little girl from evil. We also have the supernaturally tough lug Marv (Mickey Rourke) enjoying the most blissful nights of his life. And then there's the understated, rock-hard-boiled ex-photojournalist Dwight (Clive Owen), trying to prevent a war from erupting between prostitutes and the police. It is a shame that this picture will not get many Oscar nods due to its April release, because there are some inspired performances here—particularly Rourke, who manages to be both touching and horribly, horribly sadistic.

If this all sounds like a bit much to throw in a feature film, well, don't you worry. The action comes so fast and furious that you wonder where the 126 minutes went. Besides, the plot and story are not so much the points of this film. If anything, the plot serves as the frame on which co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller hang their style. The plot and story function almost as one more element of noir style in Sin City, as you maybe can gather from my hasty sketches above.

As such, the plot and story do what most of the stylistic elements in the film do, and that is to take the genre to its breaking point, to stretch it so that it threatens to break into horror at any moment. Elements of the genre are just the starting point in this film. The plot device of the hunt for the killer is distilled into five-minute bursts. The characters are more hard-boiled than Mickey Spillane's or Raymond Chandler's. Rodriguez and company hammer out all of the formal conventions of the noir genre in high relief: the lighting couldn't get much harder, shadows are overwhelmingly black, grays are the grayest they can be, the music features a lone saxophone, the dames are curvaceous and the femmes are fatale, complete with submachine guns and samurai swords.

Of course, all of this could easily slip into a groundless stylistic exercise. But thankfully for us, there's still some content here. The stories were gleaned almost exactly from Miller's pages, as were the compositions and really the whole visual look (which is why Rodriguez lobbied so hard to get Miller co-directorial credit). The dialogue, despite its stylization, keeps us from spiraling off into the rush of visual stimulation. On the other hand, part of the pleasure in watching this film comes from hearing these actors deliver these lines. Of course, if you're not a fan of the actors or genre, and perhaps if you haven't read the books, a lot of Sin City will feel like sadism rather than style or story.

That's understandable, to a point. Sure, this film is violent. Like Kill Bill, it is an exercise in pure style hung on a bare-bones narrative. Like that film (by Sin City's "special guest director," Quentin Tarantino), its violence is both extreme and cartoonish. But while watching this film and pondering its displays of pain—the white, yellow, and red blood splotches against the black—I wondered why similar displays of violence in more "realistic" films, and on TV, garner less of a reaction. When the violence is couched in such extremes of style as they are here, there is no need to get upset. This film is an exploration of limits and suspension of belief anyway. But one can't really do Sin City's style justice in print form.

What I find so fascinating about this film is how it manages to deal in extremes and in the spaces in-between things. This is a film of liminality. It takes place in a city on the edge of so many things: tar pits, a waterfront, farmland, mountains. It snows and rains in Basin City; the weather runs both hot and cold. There are '57 Chevys and Motorola cell phones. Easy comparisons with Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or New York fall apart. Gotham City—where it's also never daytime—might work best in comparison.

The visual effects are somewhere in between photorealistic and cartoonish (most of the film was done with green screen and digital effects). The characters are in-between, too; Marv is both very good and very bad. Hartigan fluctuates between these extremes, too, although he takes less pleasure in pain than does Marv. Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) is a virginal stripper. Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) is a hero cop and an absolute bastard…you get the gist.

As a meditation on film noir and violence, as an almost pure foregrounding of style at every level, Sin City is extreme. But it is also a thinly veiled reflection of contemporary obsession with violence, and thus it's fitting that the film works with so much of the in-between. After all, what's a metaphor if not a piece of language stuck somewhere between a literal meaning and complete nonsense?