77 – Sin City:
Definition – “a style of film making which shows the world as a depressing and dangerous place where many people suffer. Especially from the greed or cruelty of others.”
Definition – “a style often seen in modern motion pictures, prominently using elements of Film Noir. But with updated themes, content, style, visual elements or media that were absent in the Noirs of the 1940s and 1950s.”
So yeah, Film Noir was the original gritty motion picture genre. Protagonists were usually criminals or morally ambiguous individuals who would be slowly sucked into the darkness of the criminal underworld – usually past the point of no return. Film noir was a way to combat the idealistic nature seen in many of Hollywood’s more popular films in the Golden Age. Protagonists would die, couples wouldn’t end up together and endings would be bittersweet at best. The genre is pretty much dead in the water now, aside from occasional throwbacks to it. Neo Noir, mentioned above, usually has some sort of tongue-in-cheek elements to it. Today’s film is the definitive modern example of that. Featuring dirty cops, sleazy bars, corrupt systems, lots of guns and even more whores (and whores with guns) the following film reads like a crew of writers from the Golden Age of Hollywood got drunk and came up with some Noir stories on the spot. Sin City embraces the pulpy ‘penny dreadful’ nature of Film Noir with a surprising affection for a film so dark and violent. So shall we waste no more time then?
Sin City is a graphic novel done by Frank Miller taking place in the noir capital of hell, Basin City – nicknamed ‘Sin City’ by those unlucky to live there. Many of the stories follow different protagonists who will sometimes overlap, often while one of the other stories is taking place. Mexican-American director Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn, Spy Kids) sought to create a movie that was faithful to Miller’s distinctive art style and tone. The comic is famed for its striking artwork, which would undoubtedly be lost in a live action setting. The solution was to shoot the movie almost entirely on a digital backlot with the actors working in front of green screen. They only built three sets for the whole film – Kadie’s Bar, Shellie’s apartment and a hospital corridor. The film was also shot in colour and converted to black and white digitally – also allowing them to add in splashes of colour in keeping with the comic’s style. The result is a near panel-for-panel translation of the comic. The film is so faithful that Frank Miller is given a director’s credit too.
Our first segment – ‘The Customer Is Always Right’ – opens on a lonely woman, played by Marley Shelton. She’s approached by a charming man, played by Josh Harnett, who also narrates the scene. We get a classic Film Noir exchange between two potential lovers. Although it’s said in a tongue-in-cheek way, something about their delivery still works. Anyway, Harnett’s character kills Shelton’s before saying:
“I’ll never know what she was running from. I’ll cash her cheque in the morning”
This opening was what was filmed as a sort of teaser to get people involved. With this being such an unorthodox project, Robert Rodriguez felt it was best to just have a visual example to sell. Additionally, Frank Miller had been through some bad experiences with adaptations of his work before, so this reassured him that Sin City would be very faithful. Most of the actors signed on after watching this segment – being very impressed by the unique visual style.
After a nifty credits sequence where each actor is billed over a picture of their comic counterpart, the film begins properly. Protagonist number one is a cop called John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) trying to track down a child rapist and murderer, who has the 12-year-old Nancy Callahan in his clutches. Hartigan’s partner Bob tries to persuade him not to go after the creep. Since Bob is played by Michael Madsen – he of the slicing people’s ears off on screen – you can guess who the dirty cop is. And since Hartigan is played by Bruce Willis, you won’t be surprised when he responds by knocking Bob out cold. As an aside, I’m sure some sharp-eared Final Fantasy fans will recognise the voice of one of the goons.
Rick Gomez, one of the most entertaining people to listen to interviews of. I’d love to sing his praises more but we have a film to review. I will praise the shit out of the expression he wears as he’s knocked out.
Hartigan busts in, guns blazing, as the creep (Nick Stahl) is dragging the young Nancy away. He chases them to the docks where he proceeds to blow off the creep’s ear, hand and sacred man parts. The creep is actually the son of a senator, which explains why Bob reappears to shoot Hartigan in the back. The senator has bribed the police to cover up his son’s crimes. Bob shoots Hartigan a few more times, but the sirens indicate that back-up is on the way – so Nancy is safe at least. The girl cuddles up to the good cop and comforts him. As another aside, it sadly took me years to get the little joke of Michael Madsen showing up *after* someone else’s ear gets blown off.
While the above might sound incredibly dark and bleak, you’d be surprised to see that the film isn’t necessarily so. Film Noir these days can be accidentally funny to watch because of how recognisable the clichés are and how seriously everyone takes things. Sin City is pretty much aware of the camp undertones and embraces them. But it does it in such a way that we the viewer still take it seriously. The likes of Sin City and 300 work because they bring the silliness on board with them. The cast commit to the material in a way that it’s taken seriously but the fun and escapist nature of it doesn’t get lost. One of the reasons I found the recent Batman vs Superman so hard to watch was because it was too bleak and joyless for a film about men in capes fighting aliens. A really good example of managing to be both serious and fun is another recent film Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. One of the reasons I think it’s underrated is because the cast play their roles in such a way that the fun comes from the dissonance between the seriousness and the zombie fighting. There’s a lot to be said for a movie that knows it’s running on the fun factor but doesn’t beat the audience over the head with it.
We now begin our next segment – “The Hard Goodbye” – where a thug called Marv (Mickey Rourke) is having a one-night stand with a beauty called Goldie (Jamie King). At some point during the night, Goldie is murdered. The police sirens can be heard along the way – and Marv guesses that the real killer is framing him. Marv makes short work of the police and gets away. Enchanted by Goldie’s beauty and kindness to him, he vows that he’ll find her real killer and get revenge.
Marv stops by to see his parole officer Lucille (Carla Gugino) for some pills. He makes it perfectly clear that he knows he’ll be taken down eventually. He just hopes he brings Goldie’s killer down with him. He then swings by Kadie’s Bar – where we get a brief glimpse of Nancy Callahan who has grown up to become Jessica Alba. It’s at this point that my eyes get a little misty as we meet one of the waitresses Shellie – played by the late Brittany Murphy. This is actually the first time I’ve watched the movie since she passed away. She’s the only actress to appear in all three of the main segments in the movie – and despite this filmed all her scenes in one day.
The narration briefly switches to a man called Dwight (Clive Owen). From a wink Shelly gives him, there’s clearly something going on there. Dwight will play an important role in the next segment, but this is Marv’s story. The latter is approached by some hitmen but this is Marv we’re talking about – so we got two dead assassins and our first lead on who killed Goldie. But as Marv leaves, we see this…
Could Goldie be back from the dead? Marv leaves a trail of battered and bruised bodies that eventually leads him to a confession box. The priest, played by Frank Miller himself in a cameo, gives him the address of a farm. But we have more pressing issues to deal with: the woman who appears to be Goldie tries to run Marv down. He passes it off as a hallucination and heads for the farm. It’s there that he meets Kevin (Elijah Wood). Words can’t really describe how insanely creepy Elijah Wood is in this role. Having just come off of playing one of the most heroic characters of all time, he knew he would have to go radically against type to avoid being seen as Frodo Baggins forever. So how does Elijah Wood pull that off?
Yep, Kevin is a cannibal. He also has Lucille in his dungeon, where Marv wakes up. He cut off her hand and made her watch as he ate it. She pulls herself together pretty quickly and drops information about Goldie: she was a hooker. And a high-class one at that. Police arrive and Lucille tries to talk them down – but they shoot her down. Marv does not take this well. The last cop he kills gives him the information he needs:
Patrick Henry Roark – a cardinal who is the most powerful man in Basin City. Because of this, Marv has to be sure he’s behind it all. So he goes all the way to Old Town – which is the hookers’ territory. These are hookers with guns…
And so Marv wakes up tied to a chair, Goldie apparently in front of him. Or Wendy as she’s actually known. She’s Goldie’s twin sister. The hookers of Old Town also mistakenly believe that Marv is the killer. And Marv has now guessed that Goldie knew someone was after her – and she came onto him hoping he’d be able to protect her. He also guesses that the police did nothing about the other girls Kevin murdered, as they were hookers too. And rounding up the conclusions in this scene, he manages to untie his bonds pretty easily.
Now that Wendy knows he’s not the killer, she teams up with him and lends him her car. She also reveals that her sister worked the clergy frequently, which is rather significant. After they stock up on supplies, Marv reveals the real reason he’s willing to go after the most powerful man in Basin City just for a one-night stand. Looking how he does, he’s never had much luck with women. Even the hookers wouldn’t go near him. Goldie on the other hand was nice to him. Even if she was just looking for protection, she was still giving him something he had rarely had before. As he tells her this, it’s clear that he’s having trouble differentiating Wendy from her sister. On an unrelated note, his gun is named ‘Gladys’.
Marv tosses a Molotov cocktail into the farm to draw Kevin out, and a fight ensues. Think this scene is done well? Would you like to know that the way the film was shot meant that Mickey Rourke and Elijah Wood never filmed any scenes together? They didn’t even meet until the premiere. Anyway, Wendy wants to be the one to kill Kevin, but Marv knocks her out. He doesn’t feel that what he’s about to do is fit for a lady’s eyes – even one of the night. It involves chopping both legs off and then inviting the farm dog over for a banquet.
Marv takes Wendy over to Nancy’s and leaves her there. This is another example of the movie’s cutting edge technology – because Jessica Alba hadn’t even been cast when Mickey Rourke filmed his scenes. Marv then goes after Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer) with what’s left of Kevin.
In a twisted way, the Cardinal felt some affection for Kevin. He’s been helping him cover up his crimes for years, and it was easy what with them being prostitutes. Goldie was smarter than the others, keeping to public places where he couldn’t catch her. Marv inadvertently sealed his own doom by already being the perfect fall guy. Once Roark is done dropping exposition, Marv gets with the slicing and dicing. The police naturally arrive shortly afterwards. He ends up in prison and they want to frame him for everything – and beat him up to make sure he signs the confession. When he refuses, they threaten his mother.
Marv signs the confession – which says he also killed Lucille, the murdered whores and even Goldie herself. But he gets a small reprieve in the form of one visitor. Wendy comes to his cell and whispers “you can call me Goldie”. No kissing, no T&A. Just a hug. And the two of them lie down together in the cell. Wendy does all she can for this strange man who loved her sister so much. The next day, Marv is taken to the electric chair. Being Marv, it takes them two rounds to finish him completely off.
We now being our next segment – “The Big Fat Kill” – at the waitress Shellie’s apartment. She’s trying to keep her ex-boyfriend Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) from coming inside. Reason A is that he’s an abusive drunkard that she wants nothing to do with. Reason B is that she’s got her new lover in there with her and she doesn’t want Jackie Boy seeing him due to Reason A. Yes, the new lover is Dwight from earlier. Clive Owen is unfortunately the odd one out in the three leads. He’s not bad, but his accent comes and goes. And as such, his voice is very monotonous as he tries to keep it up. Brittany Murphy on the other hand? God, she’s awesome in this segment. I really wish she had more scenes.
Shellie eventually gives in and lets Jackie Boy and his crew inside. She gets a smack in the face for having the scent of another man on her. Dwight defends her honour as soon as Jackie Boy goes into the bathroom. It involves a razor blade and a swirly.
Jackie Boy gets the message and leaves. But Dwight wants to make sure he doesn’t rough up anyone else and chases after them – not being able to hear what Shelly shouts out after he leaves. He follows Jackie Boy to Old Town, where Dwight’s narration tells us is under the ladies’ law. Jackie Boy eyes a cute young thing called Becky.
Oh wow, just remembered my preteen crush on Alexis Bledel. In a similar vein to Elijah Wood, she was just coming off her hit show Gilmore Girls and various family friendly fare – so was clearly hoping for a boost from going against type here. Becky is reluctant and doesn’t like the look of Jackie Boy. This makes Dwight even more apprehensive, since Becky doesn’t know what a temper he has. Dwight is held up by another hooker Gail (Rosario Dawson), who insists that the girls can take care of themselves. She directs his glance upwards to Miho (Devon Aoki).
She’s Asian in an action movie from the early 2000s, with a katana in her belt – Jackie Boy might as well hand her his limbs right now. Dwight still has an uneasy feeling, but not about what Jackie Boy might do; what he hasn’t done. Although he hit Shellie, he left quickly and Dwight didn’t see them hurt anyone else. Jackie Boy does finally pull a gun on Becky, but Miho strikes. She quickly dispatches his boys and blocks the barrel of his gun. So when he fires it at her, it backfires. The girls go through his things and…
So Jackie Boy is actually a cop. This is a double uh-oh because the whores and the police have a bit of a truce. The girls don’t kill them and they get to administer their own law. Their own law involves keeping pimps and mob bosses off the streets. And if word gets out, the girls will be in deep doo-doo. Dwight thinks he can do some damage control by dumping the bodies in the tar pits. Miho chops them up so they’ll fit in the trunk.
This next scene was directed by none other than Quentin Tarantino – making this one of the first times I’d ever seen ‘Special Guest Director’ advertised. Dwight is driving to the pits, and Jackie Boy’s body wouldn’t fit in the trunk, so he has to be propped up in the passenger seat. Dwight begins to hallucinate that the body is talking to him, which you can tell is where Benicio Del Toro is having the time of his life. A cop pulls Dwight over but just for driving with a busted tail light. He assumes Jackie Boy’s body is just a drunk guy passed out. I can still remember my first feelings when watching this scene; even when you know what’s going to happen, the tension is masterfully done. Not to mention some seriously awesome visual effects pulled off by having the car lights flash in colour against the black and white.
Dwight runs out of gas and has to push the car up to the pit, where he’s shot by a sniper. Meanwhile, Gail gets ambushed in her home by a man called Manute (Michael Clarke Duncan). It turns out that they know all about Jackie Boy’s murder, and you can assume he sent the following group of Irish mercenaries after Dwight. A shoot-off ensues at the pits and Dwight ends up in the tar, the mercenaries heading off with Jackie Boy’s head. Lest you worry about Dwight too much, he’s rescued by Miho. Once he hears that Gail has been kidnapped, he realises there must be an informant who blew the whistle. They ambush the mercenaries and Dwight ends up in the sewer with the last one. Miho saves him again and they get the head. On an unrelated note, remember how both Dwight and Miho were in the tar pits? How on Earth did Miho get clean so quickly?
We now find out that Becky is the informant. Although she claims they threatened her mother, Gail guesses it was more for the money. And she shows what she thinks of that by biting a chunk out of Becky’s neck. Of course Becky didn’t count on Manute ordering his men to kill her too. She’s ironically saved by Miho shooting an arrow with a message through one of the mooks.
Manute and his men bring Becky and Gail outside, where Dwight bargains: he’ll give them Jackie Boy’s head if they hand Gail over. They agree but Dwight has hidden a grenade inside Jackie Boy’s mouth. After it goes off, the whores of Old Town assemble on the roof to get rid of everyone else. Manute and his men are gunned down. The only survivor is Becky, who gets shot in the arm. This is the only major change from the comic, where Gail kills her. The segment ends with Dwight and Gail kissing.
Now we return to the Hartigan segment – “That Yellow Bastard” – where the cop is recovering in the hospital from Bob shooting him. He meets the creep’s father Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) – who explains that he’ll be framed for all the murders and rapes as revenge for blowing his son’s balls off. Later, Nancy claims that the police won’t believe her when she tells them the truth. Hartigan advises her to stay away from him, in case she gets attacked. She comes up with a compromise: she’ll write letters to him under a false name. After a detective in her favourite books, she’ll call herself Cordelia.
Funny thing is, I saw Sin City first. So whenever I watched Buffy, I thought of this movie if I heard the name Cordelia. Hartigan meanwhile refuses to confess to the crimes, no matter how hard they beat him. He goes to jail and Nancy continues to write for him – calling herself Cordelia and carefully saying nothing that would give her away. This goes on for eight years, until one day when she doesn’t write. At first he thinks she’s just lost interest – until he gets another letter from a freaky looking guy.
That would be the Yellow Bastard the segment is named after. Inside the letter is a fingertip, and Hartigan guesses they finally found Nancy. So he confesses and gets released from prison. He eventually tracks Nancy down to Kadie’s Bar. We the viewer know that Nancy grew up to become a smoking hot table dancer – but Hartigan’s realisation that the same sensitive bookworm is now going Coyote Ugly in front of a bunch of leering males is priceless.
Then he realises that Roark’s men must have been bluffing – and he’s now led them straight to Nancy. The Yellow Bastard is watching keenly. Even worse is when she recognises him in the crowd and plants a kiss on him, giving the game away and unknowingly sealing her fate. Sure enough they’re attacked on the drive home. Hartigan manages to shoot the car off the road, but there’s no body.
They hide out in a motel room, where Nancy puts the moves on. She not-so-politely tells the old man that no girl writes the same guy for eight years if it isn’t love. Hartigan is really creeped out and rejects her, going for a cold shower. As motel showers are genre movie death traps, he’s ambushed by the yellow guy. It turns out that is none other than Roark Junior, with a few surgeries to repair the equipment Hartigan blew off so many years ago.
Hartigan is hung from a noose in the motel room – which will give quite a sight to anyone who’s on housekeeping duty. Junior drugs Nancy and takes her away. Hartigan manages to swing into the window and use the broken glass to cut the rope. I pop immensely as we get another Rick Gomez sighting – as part of the two mooks Hartigan gets information from. Junior has taken Nancy to the farm, where Hartigan follows. Needless to say this does not end well for Junior. Hartigan wraps things up by telling Nancy he’ll have to clear his name and put Senator Roark behind bars.
A pleasant lie to give Nancy some temporary peace. But the only way to keep her safe is if he’s dead. So he pulls the trigger on himself. The movie closes with an original scene inside a hospital. Becky is approached by a man in the elevator and offered a smoke. He’s played by Josh Hartnett. As noted earlier, Becky died at the end of “The Big Fat Kill” in the Old Town massacre. Here she’s implied to have hired The Salesman to kill her, acting as a bookend to the beginning of the film.
Sin City was a huge hit when it came out, getting mostly praise from critics. One review even said that there was no reason for any more comic book movies to be made afterwards, because they wouldn’t be able to top it. Look how well that turned out. This was one of the first mainstream films to be shot almost completely against green screen on a digital backlot. The technique had been done with a few Japanese films, but this and the blockbuster Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow were the ones to really put it on the market. Although James Cameron credits Lord of the Rings with showing him that CGI was up to date enough, you could argue that this is one of the films that gave Avatar the green light. Using CGI to create entire worlds and sets was suddenly a huge leap forward in filmmaking. It’s very telling that even after being exposed to Avatar, 300, Sucker Punch, Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland etc. – Sin City’s visual style still looks impressive. Likewise, the technique of recreating comic book artwork for live action has been used many times since this film. To me, this film is a great example of how a work can have both style and substance. The visuals are stunning to look at yes – but there are characters we care about, worlds we’re drawn into and situations we’re invested in. Despite the dark set-up, the movie is still clearly affectionate to its inspirations and serves to remind us why we loved Film Noir in the first place. Every member of the cast is also committing to the material to make it work. The movie also never forgets that it’s supposed to be making sure its audience is having fun, and that is a cue that Batman vs Superman unfortunately didn’t pick up on.
Turn the right back alley in Sin City and you’ll find any grades.
*Story? As an anthology film, it was pretty well-structured. Rather than completely disconnecting the three segments, the film wisely introduced each protagonist ahead of time and helped get the outsiders on board with what it was about. It’s a send-up of film noir and uses all the best tropes. B
*Characters? Despite all three leads being varying shades of dark, they’re all very easy to root for and get invested in their arcs. A lot of really fun supporting characters too. A+
*Performances? As I said earlier, most of the cast are committing to the material in the right way. They’re not being too serious and not being too mocking either. Mickey Rourke, Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Bruce Willis and Alexis Bledel would probably be the most memorable. Clive Owen unfortunately brings the score down. A-
*Visuals? Frank Miller’s comic is a sight to behold, and so is its movie counterpart. I feel as if I should title this style ‘pretty gritty’. A+
*Special Effects? You can thank this film for nearly a whole decade’s worth of CGI worlds brought to life, and I mean that as a sincere compliment. A+
*Anything Else? The movie clearly loves the genre its parodying and that underlying affection is what makes it so charming. It’s also a movie that’s running on its audience having a good time and isn’t afraid of it. A
We’re about to find a movie even darker than this (if you can believe it) with Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller Shutter Island.