Sin City not for the Squeamish

Sin City is a good movie. It is well directed, and the grittiness of the source material comes through well. Many a person will liken it to a bloodier Pulp Fiction, and not simply because Quentin Tarantino has a credit as a “special guest director”.

The movie is structured in very much the same way. The inhabitants of a city’s underworld cross paths and double-cross each other through the film. While the multiple storylines are not as tightly interwoven as those of Pulp Fiction, the film gives the definite impression that these stories are all occurring within the same place. Not at the same time, as eight years pass from the opening and the closing narratives, and at least one of the middle narratives seem to take place after the closing narrative.

While it is worth noting that both the graphic novel and the movie are meant to be a re-imagining of the noir detective stories, and both take similar paths to achieve that goal, this review will not be judging the movie based on as to how faithful an adaptation the stories are. Rather, Sin City the movie is being judged solely as a movie. The average viewer does not need to be familiar with Frank Miller’s graphic novel series; the movie provides nearly every detail necessary for the enjoyment of the film as a separate entity.

Not every loose end is wrapped up, and a few of the characters make brief appearances only to die in the course of the tale with very little to no backstory. But that is part of the nature of Basin City as a city; bad things happen to bad people, and the city lives on. Each tale has a narrator who guides the viewer through their escapades and provides smoother transitions between scene changes. This leads to a stronger internal continuity for each piece, but makes the movie lean toward episodic rather than a unified overarching narrative of the city’s underworld.

The protagonists vary from an honest cop to a sociopathic thug to two different hitmen. As a whole, a lot of changes happen at the top of the city’s underworld, but the narratives focus on the very bottom of the barrel. The movie shies away from delivering a neat and clean moral at the end of the narratives; instead, each episode ends with the restatement of the narrator’s motivation.

The most striking feature of Sin City is the visual direction. From the get-go, the unique presentation grabs the attention of the viewer. The background, and most of the characters in the movie, is black and white. This would not be so unusual by itself except for the fact the outstanding characteristics of the characters are often highlighted in color. Such as when the words “it’s your eyes” are spoken in the opening conversation, they glow green and fade back to black as the conversation continues.

Certain details on clothing, certain hair colors and skin pigments are fully colored in stark contrast to the rest of the world. The color of blood in the movie fluctuates between a bright white and shiny red, depending on several factors in the scene. In scenes where fountains of blood spurt actively from wounds, the blood is white to stand out against the gray of the characters. But when the wound is off-screen and the blood flies on-screen, it is a sparkly crimson.

While the choices in camera angles made by the director and his cinematography crew are excellent on their own, the movie owes much of its punch to the presentation. Robert Rodriquez’s deftness in digital editing is the centerpiece of the visual presentation. While there are a few small errors, the digital effects are much improved over Once Upon A Time in Mexico, Rodriquez’s last predominantly digital project.

The primary effect that the black and white backdrop achieves is the bleakness of the titular town. This is a pervasive bleakness that is subtly communicated in the fact that no serious mention is made of the greater country. A passing reference is made to a character’s presidential ambitions, but these never come to fruition. For the characters in this film, there is no world beyond the city and their problems.

And these problems are the kind of problems that often end with violent deaths to a great number of people. This is also mirrored in the villains. While they are visually striking and are very evil, quite often, no tangible motivation is given for their behavior other than “I’m evil!” This is a shame, because some of the villains have a distinct look to them, and no doubt many a viewer would have liked to see these characters developed.

The movie is well cast. While some roles are more prominent than others, every chosen actor fills the scene. Not a single actor seems out of place, and many of the performances of the lesser characters makes the viewer wish there were a few more moments with these characters. Of particular note is Bruce Willis’s portrayal of an honest cop on the verge of retirement. Both his vocal delivery and his physical gestures sell the character completely, providing one of the few completely cheer-able heroes in the film. However, the central anti-heroes are crafted so compellingly that you want them to succeed in their gruesome tasks. This is a tribute to both Frank Miller’s original work and the care that was obviously taken in writing the screenplay.

Much like the El Mariachi trilogy that has brought Rodriguez much of his fame, Sin City asks the audience to leave expectations of realism at the door. As with any good screen adaptation of a comic book, the movie succeeds in suspending the disbelief of the audience long enough to tell the story.

There is no end to the close calls that the characters experience, but there is very little doubt that the characters will pull it out. While the movie succeeds as an exaggeration of the film noir genre, it remains a movie that is more style than substance. Attempting to pull a deep meaning from the movie will frustrate the viewer. Simply enjoying the carnage and occasional grimly humorous one-liner will get you the most satisfaction out of this film. Sin City is recommended to anyone who likes their movies dark and violent.

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