Tuesday, April 05, 2005

What Happens in "Sin City"...


directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
starring Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Brittany Murphy, Benicio del Toro, Rosario Dawson, Devon Aoki, Alexis Bledel, Elijah Wood, Nick Stahl, Jamie King, Carla Gugino, Michael Madsen, Powers Boothe, and a hella lotta people I know I'm forgetting...

What is the line between pulp and porn? Whatever it is, “Sin City” straddles it with glee—and, against all odds, turns it into high-octane art. The kind of art that most likely adorns hell rather than heaven, perhaps, but art none the less.

I’m talking about the movie, of course, though I could just as easily be talking about the comic from which it’s been adapted. From all appearances and accounts, “Frank Miller’s Sin City” is just that: “Frank Miller’s Sin City.” Courtesy of Miller himself and co-director/ex-DGA member Robert Rodriguez, the movie’s been turned into a living, moving graphic novel—rather than the other way around.

The result, as even the naysayers concede, is visually stunning. (I didn’t see it in digital projection, and I still found it impressive.) Shot in black and white, with splashes of color for accent—the red hue of an evening gown, the blue depths of a girl’s eyes, the bilious yellow tint of a villain’s skin—“Sin City” reproduces Frank Miller’s universe, frame for frame, with remarkable precision. The nature of that universe, however, is practically tailored to alienate that portion of the American population for whom “sin” is a tangible, un-deconstructed concept and “fanboy” a foreign word. Frank Miller’s Sin City is a world of no fixed time or place—the cars, clothes, and other accoutrements range from 1930’s noir to Hong Kong/Tarantino chic—but of one fixed mode: corruption, vice, and grisly violence. Torture, dismemberment, sexual assault, and cannibalism are all the order of the day, not to mention prostitution and assassination. As hellmouths go, this one makes Sodom and Gomorrah look like Care Bear land.

Three men pass for heroes amid the mayhem, and that’s relatively speaking: they’re the ones who kill and mutilate the people who *like* to kill and mutilate other people, and brood a lot in between. The movie tracks each of their stories, which intersect with neat non-linearity à la “Pulp Fiction.” Oddly, the most compelling of the three is also the one that features the most relentlessly over-the-top sadism. That’s the story of Marv (Mickey Rourke), a gravel-voiced bruiser and ex-con who spends the better part of the movie hunting down the men who killed the love of his life (a blonde hooker, archetypally, if somewhat unimaginatively, named Goldie) and doing really terrible things to really terrible people. (One of these encounters involves a showdown with Elijah Wood, who uses his deer-in-headlights stare to creepy effect: you’ll never look at Frodo the same way again.) Yet Marv, thanks largely to Rourke’s strong performance, somehow emerges intact as a bona fide brooding romantic, with the kind of wry gallows humor that only real heroes can pull off.

The same can’t be said of Clive Owen as the Raymond Chandler-channeling Dwight, who unwittingly disrupts a hairpin truce between the Sin City police, the Mob, and the hookers led by his ex (Rosario Dawson, resplendent in high bondage gear). Owen certainly looks the part, though he doesn’t quite master the accent. But his real problem is the lack of energy behind this storyline, despite a funny sequence involving Benicio del Toro’s head, which was guest-directed by Quentin Tarantino, and frequent swooping appearances by a blade-wielding Asiatic angel of death—is there any other kind?—embodied by Devon Aoki. The movie goes slack here, and becomes a little too stilted and campy for its own good. It’s not helped by Dawson’s scenery-chewing or the incongruous appearance of Alexis Bledel as a goody-two-shoes prostitute who calls her mother regularly: it’s as if Rory Gilmore dropped out of Yale and wandered into Sin City unbeknownst to Lorelai. Equally random appearances by bomb-happy ex-IRA mercenaries (side note: was Miller working through Irish heritage issues? the Catholic Church doesn’t come off too well in this movie, either) and tar pits out of a Park La Brea nightmare make this the most surreal—and least coherent—of the three threads.

To the extent the movie has a moral center, it’s Bruce Willis as Hartigan, one of the few honest cops in Sin City, whose narrative flanks those of Marv and Dwight. In the first act, Hartigan rescues a young girl, Nancy Callahan, from a child molester (Nick Stahl), delivers a suitably painful punishment to the latter, and goes to jail as his reward. In the second act, he emerges eight years later and seeks out little Nancy, only to find that she’s grown into a beautiful young stripper (Jessica Alba) who’s been in love with him from the day he saved her. (I have to hand it to Miller for serving up the most unfiltered, unadulterated, unabashed male fantasy this side of James Bond and porn.) Unfortunately, the child molester is still lurking in the background, and plotting revenge. Willis has the stoic-yet-vulnerable-hero act down pat, and displays a surprisingly touching, non-icky chemistry with Alba—who, like Natalie Portman, opts to play a stripper of the non-strippin’ variety, thereby cruelly disappointing legions of fanboys. That said, I was probably more disturbed by the sudden shift from paternal to sexual relationship than I was by the fact that I had to see Nick Stahl castrated not once but twice.

Moviegoers unprepared for “Sin City” may be turned off by its Grand Guignol violence and/or its fetishization of women’s bodies (not to mention body parts). I was prepared. Still, even if I hadn’t been, I might not have been much affected. The violence is so extreme and yet so stylized, it left me feeling at once visually riveted, intellectually amused, psychologically detached, and emotionally empty. Sin City” is noir on acid—its brutality not so much hardboiled as overcooked, and its driving force the male id run amok. In some ways it put me in mind of a less self-aware, less ironic “Fight Club.” There’s something to be said for a peek into the dark side of the male psyche that aestheticizes it into postmodern entertainment. But there’s something to be feared about it, too.

RATING: *** for style and entertainment; NEGATIVE stars for redeeming social value


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