There is a world created in Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s earth-shattering Sin City, certainly, a comic book universe that is utterly unlike any I have ever seen on the screen. But what makes this a great film, rather than merely a clever one, is that its world is not merely a matter of cinematography, production design, and visual effects. It is a world with its own rules and moral formulation, a world that confounds our notions of good and evil, strips them of their conventional meaning and reduces them to the bare essentials: good becomes loyalty, persistence, “proving to your friends that you are worth a damn;” evil is corruption, nepotism, molesting children.
Sin City summarily rejects the notion that human life means anything as an end in itself. Qualities like mercy and compassion are morally neutral, but pretty much worthless — our heroes are never any less bloodthirsty than our villains, and often considerably more ingenious in their means of torture. Whether someone is a hero or a villain is determined not by his actions or even by his goals, but by his character; in this way, brutally avenging the death of a hooker becomes noble, because she showed him (Mickey Rourke), a hideous brute, the night of his life, and he can kill as many people along the way as he needs to as long as he finds the bastard that did it. He’s getting old, and this is his way of proving that he’s worth a damn.
The story is told in several segments that overlap and wind back on themselves; many of the characters never meet each other, but it could not be clearer that they are kindred spirits. Some of the heroes have handicaps and seem to be in their death throes; John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) one of the last “good cops” in Sin City, has a serious heart condition and collapses at inopportune moments; Marv (Rourke) seems to subsist on pills, gobbling them maniacally out of those little yellow prescription containers that, chillingly, are in stark color against the noir black-and-white of the rest of the film. Also in color: sometimes blood, a woman’s red dress, a girl’s blue eyes, a hero’s red tennis shoes, and a hideous yellow monster of a man (Nick Stahl).
The look of Sin City is hard to describe. I am not familiar with Frank Miller’s comic books of the same name, which is disappointing because the film is ostensibly the comic books come to life; to the untrained eye, Rodriguez seems to be going for stylized noir, though what he achieves is closer to the effect of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Most fantastic movie worlds are just like our world, only with a few elements that are different — flying cars, maybe, or a darker color palette. Here is a universe that is removed from ours in every way. It is an impossible world, which is what makes it so exciting.
I am fascinated by the way violence is portrayed in the film. There is lots of it, and not of the playful Kill Bill type; it’s brutal, and graphic, and merciless, and not remotely a joke. Its physical effects — i.e. what happens to a man’s neck when it is hit with a hatchet — seem to mirror our real-life conception of what those effects would be, and yet the effect on the characters is reduced roughly ten-fold; they take dozens of gunshots without so much as falling down, and the only effect of beating after beating and fall after fall seems to be a steadily growing accumulation of little white bandages on a character’s face.
But there is a story, too, or rather several, a plot that proceeds logically, with some surprises along the way. The segments are narrated by the protagonists in classic noir cadence; the constant voiceover, ostensibly lifted from the comic books, would be uncinematic if it weren’t so well-written and integrated into the film. There’s also nudity, prolonged and unapologetic, there to titillate just like everything else in Sin City is, in its own way.
I mentioned that the film confounds our accepted morality. That is true on one level. It posits a world where violence is not an evil but a necessity, where corruption is expected, where murder is punished only when it serves someone’s ends. But it is also a world that lauds loyalty, faith, and self-sacrifice as unquestionable virtues. The further difference, of course, is that while you may expect virtues to be rewarded, in Sin City, they are just as likely to be punished. If this isn’t one of the best films of the year, it is going to be a great year.