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April 4, 2005 / jnolen

Blood for blood, and by the gallons

Sin City was an absolutely mind-blowing movie. I'm sure you've read about how the movie was shot (entirely green-screen); how it was manipulated (high-contrast b&w splotched in certain frames with a single brilliant color — white, yellow or red); how it was co-directed (against the dictates of the DGA by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller). I don't need to rehearse all of that.

I just need to say, "Go see this movie." Slate's review was really spot on: "I loved every gorgeous sick disgusting ravishing overbaked blood-spurting artificial frame of it." And Salon says that the film offers "an admission that there are some things decent, God-fearing folk just aren't fit to see, and an assurance that Sin City is going to catalog them dutifully and in exacting detail." See also Rolling Stone and The Onion. It was brilliant.

Oh yeah, and there's a beautiful, half-asian, teenaged prostitute with a freaking ninja sword.

Sin City is unlike any other movie I’ve ever seen. It is the distilled essence of every film noir and revenge story ever put on film compressed into one hundred and twenty-six minutes. You know how people say that the original versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales were supposed to have been much darker, scarier and bloodier before the brothers cleaned them up for publication? Sin City could have the same relationship to a thousand other detective stories. It’s as though an older, darker, more primal and much more violent archetype had been rediscovered and put on screen.

The film is so completely stylized, so mannered, that it’s hard to really call the performances acting, in the normal sense of the word. Every line is delivered as though it had the iconic power of “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” or “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Each story is told with the over the top, hard-boiled narration of the main male character. It sounds strangely stilted at the beginning. But you quickly fall in with the rhythm of the dialogue. And you realize that the film really is meant to be that iconic.

If you don’t want any details spoiled, stop reading now.

There are also some interesting things going on with gender roles in this movie. It works both with and against its genre. All of the interior monologue comes from male characters (The Man, Hartigan, Marv and Dwight). The victims are exclusively female (The woman in the red dress, Nancy, Goldie, Lucille, Becky). But we also have lots of kick-ass female characters (Gail, Wendy, Lucille, Miho, and Nancy, again) who are able to fight for themselves. And there isn’t a true femme fatale, in the classic sense of a woman who brings the downfall of the hero. Nancy is the most complete of the female characters. And she gets to play both victim and heroine by turns.

The Old Town hookers seem to offer a kind of feminine ideal in Miller’s universe. An entire society of women, refusing to be victimized by the men around them — be they pimps or cops or mafia or government officials. They are completely sexualized, but able to use sexuality on their own terms and for their own benefit. Except Becky, who is ashamed to let her mom know that she’s a hooker. Of course, Becky is the one who betrays and nearly destroys the whole system, so maybe she’s shouldn’t be read as part of the ideal. They are able to protect themselves. Except that they still need Dwight’s help when the chips are down, which sort of undermines the whole thing.

The other woman who seems more or less in control of her own destiny (at least at the beginning) is Lucille, and she’s a lesbian.

The framing scenes with The Man are both highly interesting. In the opening, you have a traditional situation where a predatory man kills a beautiful and defenseless woman. But when the same scene is played out again at the end of the movie, we know more: the girl is being killed not for any personal reasons that The Man might have — he’s just an instrument. Instead, she is killed because she’s betrayed the rules of her exclusively female society. And you’re forced to reexamine the initial scene and wonder why it was the The Man was sent to kill the first girl.

So I’m not sure exactly what Miller is getting at. But he’s playing with the genre formula rather than submitting to it. There is more going on here than what’s on the surface.

[See also comments here:]

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