From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog: Movie Review: <span style="font-style: italic;">Sin City</span>

Friday, April 01, 2005

Movie Review: Sin City

Sin City (2005) Directors - Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller; Guest director - Quentin Tarantino; Starring - Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Nick Stahl, Rosario Dawson, Jamie King, Brittany Murphy, Elijah Wood, Jessica Alba, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Clarke Duncan; Screenplay - Robert Rodriguez, from comics created and written by Frank Miller; Rated R for graphic violence, nudity, sexual content and language; trailer here.

As much of a film geek as I consider myself to be, I've always had a little bit of trouble wrapping my brain around the concept of film noir. I know what the term means and what film noir is supposed to be. However, I think some of my confusion lies in the films that get touted as noir in publicity junkets and what not when they really don't fit the mold that well.

Frank Miller has no problems at all grasping what makes noir unique and has long written comics that live up to that ideal in all its seedy glory. His take on Batman has to rank among the best comics ever written. When Robert Rodriguez convinced Miller to allow Rodriguez to adapt stories from Miller's much ballyhooed series Sin City, both men took a serious chance and put their reputations in their respective arts on the line. The investment pays off in spades.

The film follows three different figures as they make their way through the fictional Basin City. Bruce Willis is Hartigan, a grizzled veteran police detective on the trail of a ruthless child rapist and murderer. Mickey Rourke is Marv, a hulking brute who seeks revenge for the death of Goldie (Jamie King). Goldie is the only person who has shown Marv genuine kindness. Last, we have Clive Owen's Dwight, a roustabout seeking to protect his girl (Brittany Murphy) from her menacing former lover Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro).

The three stories are seemingly unrelated. The only thing they seem to share is their existence in a bleak, unforgiving city that is teeming with stories and figures that are all bereft of hope. There's nothing in the stories that surround the central characters that makes you think there's the hope of some kind of redemption. Indeed, Hartigan, Dwight, and Marv are antiheroes in the worst possible way.

The truth is none of that really matters. This film doesn't delve very deep with any of the lives it touches. What it does do is sweep the audience into its own unseemly world in a way I don't think any other film has in some time. Shot on a digital soundstage in Austin with no physical sets anywhere, Sin City is a positively overwhelming sensory experience. Considering that Sin City physically exist only within Miller's imagination, Rodriguez and his visual effects team have done a groundbreaking job of pulling that vision right off Miller's pages and slapping it up on the screen whole and unchanged.

The film is done in the same stark black and white style of the comic, with isolated uses of color on certain characters or objects. The resulting visuals left me mesmerized. A sequence involving Marv standing in the rain leaves him spattered with flashes of white as though God himself was trying to erase this freak of nature from existence. Other sequences eliminate the shades of gray and flip into a reverse photo negative style that leaves some of the more gruesome aspects of the action solely to the viewer's imagination. The entire effect from beginning to end is arresting.

The performances are also solid all around. Willis' Hartigan is probably the closest thing Miller can offer as a true hero. It's Willis' performance that brings his flaws to the fore and make you sympathize with his choices even if you can't bring yourself to like the character. Clive Owen's Dwight leans on his mischievous good looks and adds a level of menace I didn't see in Closer. Rosario Dawson's Gail, head of a group of prostitutes that runs a section of the city referred to as "Old Town" has a frank sexuality that gives way some ruthless bloodlust.

The highlight of the movie for me had to be Rourke's performance as Marv. Done up in some heavy prosthetic makeup to replicate Marv's hard physical edges in the comic, Rourke steps right into the role and wears it like a comfortable suit. He's one part slow witted lunkhead, a part warm hearted softie, and one part brutal menacing force. Rourke gives the impression that he loves playing all these aspects to the hilt. He takes complete control of the movie when he's on screen, and when his time with us in the film is finally done, it's a crying shame to see him go. I'll see this movie again for Marv alone.

One more performance worth mentioning is Elijah Wood as Kevin. The less said about who his character is the better. The full effect is had by finding out who and what he is from the story itself. His limited time on screen makes the most effective use of the black and white visual effects that Rodriguez utilized for the film.

The script itself reads like a hard boiled detective novel in all the right ways. There's extensive use of voice over in Hartigan and Marv's segments on screen which I thought would bother me at first. The more I heard, the more I became comfortable with it and enjoyed what it lent to the movie. It feels like a Mike Hammer novel on some really heavy drugs.

Rodriguez's direction and camerawork complete the picture. Rodriguez I've liked since I first saw El Mariachi, but I felt strongly that he left a lot of potential behind with his last effort Once Upon a Time in Mexico. He wrote, directed, edited and scored that feature. A part of me thought the movie might have been better served if he had delegated some of that work to someone else that he could have focused on getting more out of the film. When I heard that he was doing the same with Sin City, it gave me pause. My fears were unfounded. Combined with Miller's input on the visual style of the film Rodriguez finally fulfills all of that potential and more with this effort.

There are things that are going to sour this film for some people. It's more violent than anything that he's ever done. You'd have to put three or four solid zombie pictures together to get as many dismemberments as you do in this one film. I think the black and white augments the effect of the violence. The blood runs white in some scenes which reduces the appearance of gore and I thought made the psychological impact of the violence more pronounced. There's also some sexual politics (for lack of a better way to describe it) that might make some of the more ardent feminists out there scream in anger or cringe in revulsion.

All of this I think is necessary in order to be true to what the source material is. Miller has never put a pretty face on the figures in his work. In some respects I think that Miller's characters don't just recognize their flaws but dive right in and roll around in them like a hog in a wallow. Rourke's Marv is a prime example of this. In the end, Sin City is the kind of place you have to be tougher than nails in to be able to survive. Rodriguez's Sin City doesn't just survive there. It thrives there. And for springtime, I think there are few things better than good filmmaking in full bloom.