Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Director Report Card: Robert Rodriguez (2005) Part One

11. Sin City
Co-directed with Frank Miller

In 2005, I thought “Sin City” was the coolest shit imaginable. I'm not even talking about Robert Rodriguez' film but Frank Miller's original comic books. I was vaguely aware of the comics and, upon hearing that a high-profile film adaptation was coming from one of my favorite directors, decided I needed to track them down. I was immediately blown away by the graphically intense black-and-white art. The beyond hard boiled writing seemed catchy to me. And as a try-hard, faux-edgy fifteen year old, the extreme content was classified as “bad ass.” When the movie came out, I thought it was bad ass too. Of course, we are all more mature now and “Sin City's” cinematic legacy is a complicated one. I've probably only seen the film once or twice since my teen years so I knew this would be an interesting re-watch.

As in Miller's source material, our setting is Basin City, a shadow and rain soaked metropolis. The grimmest and grittiest city in the world, three tales unfold there. In “The Hard Goodbye,” unstable brute Marv is loved for one night by prostitute Goldie. Upon finding her dead the next morning, Marv sets out on a bloody trail of vengeance, which leads to the highest seat of power in the city. In “The Big Fat Kill,” Dwight protects his girlfriend from an abusive ex. When the same man crosses the women of the red light district, he's killed. This act of violence leads to a full-blown gang war. Finally, “That Yellow Bastard” follows cop Hartigan as he hunts down a brutal serial killer and rescues a little girl. Framed for the crimes, he rots in prison for eight years, but gets out when he realizes Nancy – the child he rescued – might be endangered. Nancy isn't the same girl he remembers and both of them are soon endangered by an inhuman monster.

It may be regarded somewhat derisively now but “Sin City” was critically praised in 2005, by professional people who get paid to know what movies are and aren't good. Aside from maybe not being as sophisticated a time, there's another reason “Sin City” received such critical praise back then. Visually, there hadn't been anything else quite like this in mainstream cinema before. Robert Rodriguez used his tendency to shoot largely on green screen for good this time. “Sin City” replicates the look of Miller's comics as closely as possible. Thus, the film has a highly stylized look. Shadows contrasts brightly against greyscale settings. The largely shades-of-gray world is punctuated by bursts of exaggerated color. When combined with actors in extensive make-up and Rodriguez' typically energetic direction, “Sin City” creates a fantastically artificial world. The use of digital back lots have become common sense but, at the time, “Sin City” was groundbreaking. Moreover, it was visually intoxicating. It still is.

Rodriguez doesn't just attempt to recreate the look of Frank Miller's comics. “Sin City” used Miller's original panels as storyboards. The film follows Miller's story beat-for-beat. Rodriguez even invited Miller to co-direct, to further insure utmost fidelity to his original books. But at what cost does such slavish devotion to the source material come? As a teen, I got a thrill out of seeing those comics I love come to life. Watching as an adult, I honestly wonder what was Rodriguez' motivation for translating the comics so faithfully to screen. There are definitely moments a higher level of adaptation might've been required. Such as the heavy reliance on voice-over narration. Or scenes that looked awesome as stationary panels but look a little silly when brought to life, such as Marv grinding a guy's face into the asphalt. The visual thrill is worth something but, if you've read Miller's books, you're halfway to getting everything Rodriguez' “Sin City” offers.

Aside from being claimed by juvenile film-bros, there's another reason for “Sin City's” derisive reappraisal. In 2019, we all know that Frank Miller is completely insane. And if you've read all the “Sin City” comics, you know Miller getting the freedom to do whatever he want eventually led to self-indulgent nonsense. Rodriguez adapts three of Miller's best stories. Even then, “Sin City” is such a distillation of the hard-boiled noir aesthetic that it's practically a parody. Some of the dialogue is patently ridiculous, such as lines about “punching out God” or a not exactly sensitive mention of cerebral palsy. The film is such a hyper-macho, overblown experience of bygone stereotypes that it straddles the line between homage, spoof, and uncritical permissiveness.

It's also, of course, sexist as fuck. Though the movie doesn't think it is. (I don't know if that's better or worst.) Frank Miller probably thought he was creating strong female characters. The women in this movie brandish guns. They drive cool cars and fight back against bad guys. The villains are sexists, rapists, women-targeting serial killers, or all three. The male heroes would never lay a defensive finger on a woman. Yet all the women in Basin City are also prostitutes or strippers. They dress almost exclusively in revealing lingerie, when they aren't straight-up naked. Extreme violence against women is a common theme. So is the patronizing, dehumanizing way the would-be chivalrous heroes treat them. All the women in the film are objects of male gratification, regardless of how good or evil the guys are.

But let's just put all that aside for a minute and focus on how incredibly entertaining these stories are. “The Hard Goodbye,” which was the original “Sin City” story, remains my favorite. Marv is a fascinating figure. Miller has described him as inspired by Conan the Barbarian. In a modern context, that means he's an incredibly violent and mentally unstable psychopath. His shaky moral code is all that keeps him from being the serial killer people accuse him of being. Yet there's also a child-like vulnerability to Marv. Despite his clear cleverness, he thinks of himself as stupid. His love for Goldie is simple, incorruptible, pure in a way. And it's because she's the first woman to ever love him in return. Marv also loves his mama. It's easy to assume this guy had a rough, lonely childhood. He may be a cackling, sadistic lunatic who pays cruelty to the cruel. He has no problem unleashing his violent tendencies on those he thinks deserve it. He's also a deeply sad man, an overgrown kid in a monster's body.

When I first read the original “Sin City” graphic novel, which became “The Hard Goodbye,” I was surprised by how far it went. “Sin City” is so gruesome and grotesque that it nearly becomes a horror movie. The antagonist of the first story is a cannibalistic serial killer with razor sharp claws. He never speaks, never shows any emotion, and moves with an inhuman speed. We hear all about his habits and even see some of the grisly evidence of his crimes. Kevin is right out of a nightmare. And it's far from the film's only fantastical element. By the end, more than one regular human has been mutated into an ugly creature. It's like “Dick Tracy” on crack, with a more extreme but familiar need to exaggerate reality into an over-the-top fantasy.

Among “Sin City's” all-star cast, “The Hard Goodbye” features probably my favorite collection of performers. Mickey Rourke's comeback would begin in earnest here. Marv may be the quintessential Rourke role. He's nasty, tough, macho, even gets an explicit sex scene, but remains fascinating throughout. Elijah Woods, meanwhile, has the uncanny elements necessary to bring the chilling Kevin to life. It's also neat when Rutger Hauer drops in for a brief role as the unholy clergyman behind the entire scheme. Carla Gugino's doesn't-give-a-fuck attitude is well suited to Lucille, Marv's put-upon parole officer. Only Jamie King as Goldie/Wendy seems miscast, as her attempts to be tough come off as unconvincing.

As a teenager, “The Big Fat Kill” was my least favorite segment of the movie and among my least favorite comic in the series. As an adult, it plays a little better. Probably because I realize it's supposed to be a comedy. It's during this story that “Sin City” bends the most towards the surreal and absurd. We are obviously meant to laugh at Jack Rafferty, as his own belligerence brings a deadly fate down on him. His death scene is appropriately humiliating. The scenes were Rafferty's corpse begins talking to Dwight are obviously meant to be farcical. If there was any doubt, this story features a weirdly hilarious scene of a henchman trying to get people to notice he's been impaled. I'm pretty sure Rodriguez and Miller were well aware of how weird and funny this stuff was.

Or maybe they weren't, as “The Big Fat Kill” also has long and relatively serious stretches. The attempted romance between Dwight and Gail is just impossible to take seriously, even as farce. Long portions of the episode are devoted to action. By detaching himself entirely from reality, Rodriguez is allowed to make his most over-the-top action film yet. Limbs, heads, and other body parts are cleaved away, blood of varying shades spraying wildly. People are tossed through the air by gunshots and explosions. How hurt someone is by such a blow depends entirely on whether or not they are a named character. There are cartoonish scenes of faces slammed into walls and overblown car crashes. This works in “Sin City's” favor. No matter how extreme its violence gets, it's all so exaggerated to become pure stylization.

As for “The Big Fat Kill's” cast, it's also not my favorite of the film. Clive Owen makes for a compelling leading man. Yet Dwight is such a weird character. I think he's supposed to be a stand-up dude but, in Sin City, that still means he's an unnerving and overbearing nut. Benicio del Toro affects an odd voice as Rafferty but happily hams it up once he's a corpse. Rosario Dawson is a great actress but there's no convincing way to play Gail, an utterly ludicrous character and among the film's most facile fantasies, without coming off badly. Michael Clarke Duncan is an appropriately intimidating villain. Devon Aoki is fittingly athletic as Miho, and Brittany Murphy gets off a few good lines as the abused Shellie.

Among “Sin City's” stories, “That Yellow Bastard” is a strong second favorite for me. There's definitely something icky about the near-romance between a nineteen year old girl and the sixty-something man she sees as a father figure. Yet “That Yellow Bastard” works because it grounds an outrageous story in a melancholic heart. Hartigan is at the end of his life and knows it. He's totally willing to sacrifice himself if it means something pure – such as a little girl or the young woman she grows into – survives. He's the ultimate cynic too, beaten down by the cruel world and all too aware of how unbeatable it is. Though its villain is among the film's most monstrous and its dialogue the most outrageous – not easy feats – there is touching pathos in Hartigan's hopeless quest to stick to his principals in an unprincipled world.

It's also among the last good Bruce Willis movies. Willis' gravelly voice is perfect for Miller's absurd dialogue. Willis' face is perfect to carry all of Hartigan's regrets. Nick Stahl is also pitch perfect as the Yellow Bastard. He may look like a comic book super villain but he acts like a petulant brat, a spoiled little boy and a sickening sadist. When it was new, I didn't think Jessica Alba was very good as Nancy, another stripper in a Robert Rodriguez movie who doesn't take her clothes off. Watching now, she comes off a little better. Despite her professional, Nancy is meant to be a wide-eyed girl with a childish crush on an unavailable man. That's how Alba plays it. Attention must also be paid to Powers Booth, who gets a viciously intense monologue all to himself, and Michael Madsen, whose immediately recognizable rasp fills up a thin part.

Considering I'm a bit older and wiser now, I was curious how my thirty year old eyes would receive “Sin City,” when compared to the enthusiastic reception I gave it as a teen. Here's the truth: I still really like this movie! The stories are the very definition of problematic. Rodriguez hewing so closely to Miller's illustration is a sometimes frustrating move. It's all ridiculously macho and over-the-top. Yet it's still a lot of fun to watch. There's enough of a carnal of truth to these ridiculous stories, to make them more meaningful than a lot of hyper-masculine, juvenile provocations. The film's visual presentation is still fantastic. The cast is still extremely good. While I'm all too aware of its flaws now, and wouldn't blame anyone for deriding this shit as totally stupid, I am not too woke to admit I still get plenty of enjoyment out of “Sin City.” [Grade: B+]

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