Produced by Dimension Films
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
Written by Frank Miller
Distributed by Dimension Films and Miramax Films
So you have been wondering what happened to Frodo, a.k.a. Elijah Wood, after he drifted off into that glorious sunset at the end of The Return of the King? It seems he didn’t go on to the next world after all. Instead, he hired on with director Robert Rodriguez and sank into Sin City. There, he took up killing women so he could cannibalize their bodies and mount their heads on his trophy wall. Don’t worry, though—he paid for his excesses. Someone named Marv lopped off his arms and legs and then fed his still-breathing torso to the dogs. In Marv’s inimitable words, he was given “the hard goodbye.”
You can see all this and much, much more in Rodriguez’s Sin City, a film many of our toniest movie reviewers have hailed as the biggest aesthetic breakthrough since Quentin Tarantino’s bloodfest Kill Bill. As for me, I know trash when I see it, so be warned. I feel no obligation to protect this project’s cheesy secrets. If you’re hellbent on seeing the movie for yourself, please read no further.
Rodriguez’s Sin City is little more than a grotesque postmodern stunt. He pretends to be distilling film noir down to its irreducibly bitter essence with the aid of Frank Miller’s loathsome comic books—excuse me, graphic novels—bearing the same hackneyed title. (Do you know of any urban center that’s not been called sin city?) The film, which Miller helped Rodriguez direct, is obnoxious on two counts. First, it trades in graphic portrayals of outré violence, including mutilation, beheading, castration, cannibalism, and murderous pedophilia, all of which are ultimately laid—are you ready for this?—at the feet of a corrupt Roman Catholic cardinal, a gray eminence who distantly presides over this urban cesspool. How’s that for snazzy topicality? Second, Rodriguez cynically travesties film noir, one of America’s more authentic traditions. To round out his efforts, he has employed the master of the postmodern sneer, Tarantino himself, to direct one of the film’s more rancid segments involving a decapitated head that refuses to shut up. Rodriguez’s earlier films—Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Spy Kids, From Dusk Till Dawn—were childish reworkings of action-movie clichés. Now, under the influence of Miller’s garish vision and Tarantino’s crud-loving sensibility, he has traded in his former juvenile energy for a shallow and sickly sophistication. This is all the more disappointing because the look of his film is often genuinely riveting.
Rodriguez has spared no effort to dazzle his audience with some of the most compelling cinematography I’ve seen this year. His film is steeped in a stygian black-and-white scheme punctuated by occasional bursts of incandescent color. A woman named Goldie (Jaime King) is just that, from her blonde hair to her tawny, translucent skin. A saturnine hero shows he means business by driving about in a liquid-red Cadillac. After being savagely beaten, a wealthy villain’s white skin takes on an ochre patina like that of a weathered medallion. And then there’s the mayhem, during which people bleed in several hues and shades—principally red and white.
This color-coding strategy is, of course, not new. John Huston shot his adaptation of Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) in color and then had the film processed into a sepia tint that momentarily winked into crimson when the camera glanced at anything red. This was meant to convey the stifled passion among officers and their wives living on a Southern Army base. In his black-and-white Schindler’s List (1993), Steven Spielberg used color to drive home the terrible poignancy of Jews being rounded up by Nazis in occupied Poland. In a sea of grim black-and-white figures, a little girl briefly appears wearing a red coat, until the colorless darkness of the surrounding crowd drowns her image from the screen. Rodriguez’s use of color has no such dramatic purpose. It is as weightlessly decorative as the blue tinting in a black-and-white American Express television commercial. At one point, gold and red salaciously emphasize the aforementioned Goldie’s naked body; at another, red and white give color, shall we say, to the gobs of gore gushing from the neck of a decapitated miscreant. This is heartless showmanship. However brilliantly executed, it is quite meaningless beyond the momentary sensations it creates.
As for the film’s story line, I’m told that it is quite faithful to Miller’s narratives, in which the sinful city is as much a character as its denizens. But this is no recommendation. The comic-book world Miller has created with admittedly bravura draftsmanship is tiresomely puerile and repellently perverse. Miller claims to have been influenced by Raymond Chandler, among other practitioners of the hard-boiled school, and you can detect this influence in his dim attempt to inject his stories with a note of chivalry. His half-witted steroidal heroes are obsessively driven to defend, save, or revenge wronged women. Curiously, these distressed damsels are invariably sluts (if not prostitutes) who just happen to look like goddesses in their negligee-like apparel and not-infrequent nudity. Miller’s tales, however, have nothing of Chandler’s ironic regret for lost virtue. In The Big Sleep, Philip Marlowe is bemused by his innate chivalric impulses. He knows perfectly well how severely discounted such feelings have become in the 20th century. At the same time, he refuses to abandon his knightly code, because it is his only chance for self-respect in a morally polluted world. Miller and Rodriguez are deaf to Chandler’s ambiguities. They are not even working at the low level of Mickey Spillane and Jim Thompson. They have processed pulp into a putrid pabulum. If romance novels appeal to feminine fantasies of being helplessly borne away in the bulging arms of irresistibly virile suitors, Miller and Rodriguez appeal to a certain type of demented 14-year-old boy harboring a cretinous desire for women who conveniently blend the best attributes of madonna and whore. This is not art of any kind; it is just pandering. And since they have unquestionably designed their film for adolescents, it is pandering of the vilest kind.
To put Miller’s “vision” across, Rodriguez has chosen three principals, each with his own story of heroic travail. The first is detective Hartigan (Bruce Willis), whom we meet as he closes in on a well-born pedophile who is absconding with an 11-year-old girl. Hartigan pursues this creep tenaciously, despite warnings that it is useless since the fiend is protected by his senator father, the cardinal’s brother no less. Furthermore, the aging Hartigan, who is just hours away from retirement, suffers from severe angina. As his partner remarks, “You’re pushing sixty; you’re not saving anyone.” Sound familiar? This is postmodernist mockery: Recycle society’s hoariest clichés to expose the retread nature of its exhausted values.
Next is Marv, played by Mickey Rourke, rendered unrecognizable by a prosthetically disfigured face. In keeping with Miller’s chivalric theme, his features seem to have fused metallically into a medieval helmet complete with visor. He is on a mission to revenge Goldie’s murder. In his search for her killer, Marv goes to Confession to a priest who knows the fellow’s location. (Apparently, he is in contact with the cardinal, but who knows.) Unfortunately, after his revelation, the priest raises an ill-advised question: “Ask yourself if that corpse of a slut is worth dying for.” Marv repays this sensible counsel by unceremoniously shooting the padre, another nice Catholic touch.
Last, there’s Dwight (Clive Owen), who hangs out with a cadre of homicidal prostitutes in Old Town, the city’s center in which the well-armed ladies pursue their trade, enforcing grisly retribution on males who dare step out of line. Despite their evident martial resources, Dwight feels compelled to protect the damsels when they are troubled by a corrupt cop. On his way to a showdown, he talks to himself in voice-over, making such faux-noir observations as: “It’s time to prove to your friends that you’re worth a damn. Sometimes that means dying, sometimes it means killing a whole lot of people.” Indeed. Not to mention cutting up the resulting corpses so they will fit into the trunk of your car.
Rodriguez exposes the emptiness of his noir flourishes by opening and closing his epic with a steal from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). A nameless man appears on a balcony and approaches an equally unidentified woman in a blood-red dress. They tenderly embrace, and, as they do, he shoots her in the stomach. This reenacts the fatal embrace between Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray near the close of Double Indemnity. In Wilder’s film, however, this scene is the fitting culmination of the couple’s greed and lust. Instead of life, their sexual union engenders death. This gives the scene genuine moral consequence. Rodriguez merely steals the deadly glamour and ignores its human relevance. Like everything else in his film, it is a cruelly spectacular but morally vacuous gesture.