I admire truth in advertising. I like to order a Diet Coke and get a Diet Coke. I like names for things that tell me exactly what to expect: Campbell's tomato soup; the Weather Channel; Cracker Barrel.
Sin City, the new film co-directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, paints a picture (sometimes literally) of exactly that: a city of sin. Mortal sins, original sins, cardinal sins, sin-sations. Every kind of sin imaginable, from lust to greed to pride, is on magnificent, monochromatic display. And while this movie's going to make some people uneasy, I admire it because it sets out to do something and does it 1,000 percent.
Based on Miller's series of dark and intense graphic novels of the same name, Sin City takes three of the (several) stories and lines them up Pulp Fiction-style consecutive and yet strangely concurrent and overlapping.
The first is the tale of Marv (a fantastic Mickey Rourke), a tough guy with a heart of gold and a face as square and tough as a cinder block. One night he goes to bed with Goldie the only woman who ever showed him any kindness and when he wakes up, she's dead. Someone has slipped in and murdered her quietly. Marv vows to uncover the mystery, but he himself is a suspect. With the help of a band of mercenary hookers (who rove through most of the film), he discovers that a strange, farmboy cannibal (spooky Elijah Wood) killed Goldie, as well as a number of other prostitutes, and that the powers of the Catholic Church are somehow behind the young killer.
Story number two involves reformed killer Dwight (smoldering Clive Owen, doing his best stab at an American accent), whose new girlfriend Shellie (Brittany Murphy) has an old boyfriend (magnificent Benicio Del Toro) who's not quite done with her yet. What starts as an innocent-enough brawl between two thugs and the prostitute they both want turns into a full-out, inner-city war when the roving vigilante hookers from the first story show up to battle a legion of corrupt cops over the regrettable death of one of Sin City's finest.
The third tale involves Bruce Willis as Hartigan, one of Sin City's few cops with a conscience. When a powerful senator's son kidnaps a young girl for pedophiliac and murderous intent, local police are expected to look the other way. Not Hartigan. He rescues the young girl and wounds the creep son (Nick Stahl) so that he is impotent. He's then framed and gets sent to prison for eight years for the crime that he prevented in the first place. When released, he seeks out the girl, now 19 and a stripper (Jessica Alba), to protect her from the menacing Yellow Bastard the pedophile, now up and mutated from years of experimental therapy to restore his virility.
The subject matter of Sin City is reprehensible. The violence is almost numbingly constant. Sex is dirty, dirty, dirty. Even the most heroic of Sin City's denizens kill without thinking twice, cops (even the good ones) are viewed as dispensable annoyances, and every single woman in the film is a prostitute or a stripper. The filmmakers have tried to justify that choice by depicting the women as strong and in control of their lives, but how in control can they be when they subject their bodies to the sexual whims of men for their livelihood? And it's not like Sin City is peopled with affable johns like Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. Even the heroes are trouble. More than one set of genitals is ripped or shot off. Ick.
That said, Sin City is awesome. Filmed in gorgeous black and white and reproduced frame-by-frame from Miller's graphic novel, Sin City is a marvel of visual and violent beauty. Color is used with uncompromising discretion: red lips, gold hair, red blood, green eyes, the Yellow Bastard. The result is the opposite of the same approach in Pleasantville. This is Unpleasantville. But the re-creation of the look and spirit of the comics is not limited to the pretty pictures. The acting from the posturing of the women to the steel-eyed resolve of the men is dead-on in the style of comic characters, as vibrant and as roundly two-dimensional. It reminds me of Moulin Rouge in that it transcends the balance of style versus substance. In a case like this, when the aesthetic is so rich and complete, the style is the substance.
Sin City is not for everyone. In fact, it is almost not for me. But a work as thorough and brave and rich as this deserves some respect. There is virtue in this Sin. n