Looming shadows fall starkly across rain-slick streets. A door chain jiggles because a very bad man wants to come in and hurt someone. Hookers pull guns from garter belts. Tough, tough talk comes from bruised lips that dangle cigarettes and spit blood.
The villians are unspeakably evil. The heroes are compromised and overmatched. The city is filled with corruption but the countryside is even worse.
In “Sin City,” two of today’s greatest stylists join forces in an audacious synthesis of graphic novel and movie. It has the logic of a nightmare. It is movie-making pared down to the essentials Pauline Kael once saw on an Italian movie poster: “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”
It is intentionally shocking when it confronts us with heart-stopping cruelty and violence. And it is even more shocking when it finds a terrible beauty in ruination.
Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Spy Kids) defied the rules of the Directors Guild to bring on as his co-director Frank Miller, the writer/artist who created the Sin City graphic novels. The result is a faithful, shot-for-shot rendition of each stunning panel. Hard, resolute voice-overs accompany stark, inky images. There are brief flashes and flutters of color — red for brake-lights, a heart-shaped bed, a lightning-streaked sky, a sleek getaway car, and for blood. Yellow for the golden curls of a dead hooker and the jaundiced skin of a cowardly villain whose toxic perversions have turned him the color of bile.
Three stories about heroes battling overwhelming odds circle around each other, amplify each other, and ultimately intersect.
Marv (almost unrecognizable Mickey Rourke in a career-restoring performance) is a gigantic brute of a man. “I love hitmen,” he says, “No matter what you do to them you don’t feel bad.” After a beating he says, “My muscles make me a thousand promises of pain to come.” He has had one perfect night of love with a golden-haired prostitute who “smelled the way an angel should.” She said she wanted him. But the next morning, he wakes up in that heart-shaped bed to find that she has been murdered lying next to him.
Marv does not think too clearly. He can hold just one thought in his head at a time, if that. The world always seems incomprehensible and dreamlike to him, especially when he thinks he sees his Goldie again. But this is her twin sister. Marv knows — he thinks he knows — that justice requires him to kill the people who murdered his angel, no matter what the cost.
John (Bruce Willis) is a cop about to retire. He has a bad heart. But he cannot quit until he finds a way to rescue a little girl named Nancy from a man who molests and kills children but is protected by the forces that control Sin City.
And Dwight (Clive Owen) is a man who has made a bad enemy, his girlfriend’s predatory and abusive ex-boyfriend (Benicio Del Toro). Their dispute will shred the fragile compromise between the corrupt cops and the gang bosses that allows the prostitutes to control their own section of Sin City.
This is a masterpiece of technique, bravura film-making with sure and complete mastery of tone, setting, and mood. A lesser cast would be lost, even invisible, but Rourke, Willis, and especially Owen are every bit as arresting as the images around them. Most of the female characters are more props than characters, but Rosario Dawson and Jessica Alba make strong impressions.
The film is overwhelming at times, intentionally keeping viewers off-kilter by combining grand heroics, stunning beauty, hideous grotesquery, outrageous butchery, toughness and innocence, tragedy and comedy. This is a movie where a man’s hand is sliced off and then he slips on it like a bananna peel. The entire film exists precisely on the edge between exploitation and artistic statement, ultimately saving itself from toppling over with the sincerity of its tone, the beauty of its images, and the honor of its heroes.
Parents should know that this movie is extremely disturbing. It is not for kids and not for many adults. It is an extremely violent movie with constant, intense, and exceptionally graphic battles and all-out butchery and slaughter. Body parts are sliced off (and eaten — off-camera). People are wounded and killed just about every possible way, including electrocuted, stabbed, impaled, shot, dumped into a tar pit, and sliced up. There are severed heads and other body parts. There are references to child rape and cannibalism. The film also includes nudity, strippers, prostitutes, sexual references, and non-explicit sexual situations. Characters drink and smoke and abuse prescription drugs. They also lie, cheat, steal, extort, and violate as many laws (and commandments) as can be packed into one movie, with some of the most loathsome and vile villains ever put on film.
Families who see this movie should talk about the enduring appeal of such dark stories and characters and the way that co-directors Miller and Rodriguez use the settings and the camera to create mood and character.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the graphic novel series that inspired it as well as some of the movies that inspired them, like The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, and Kiss Me Deadly. They will also enjoy films by “guest director” Quentin Tarantino, including Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.