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Laramie Movie Scope: Sin City

A tale of hookers, mobsters, cannibals and swirlies

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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April 2, 2005 -- “Sin City” is a modern western about a broken down society where the only justice is dispensed by sado-masochistic vigilantes. This ultra-violent film includes dismemberment, castration, decapitation, stabbings, shootings, beatings, torture and other forms of brutality and barbarity, and that's just what the heroes of the film do. The bad guys are into cannibalism, child molestation and other horrors. In one scene, a dog eats a still-living man whose arms and legs have been cut off. In another scene, a man's head is held down in an unflushed toilet. After he gets up, he spits out what appears to be water mixed with urine. This is one of the lighter scenes, played for laughs. A lot of the violence in the film has a curiously humorous tinge to it.

The film takes place in a dystopian Los Angeles in which part of the city, dubbed Sin City, is ruled by prostitutes and crooks who police themselves. The police force is largely corrupt, but there are a few honest cops still on the force. One of them is John Hartigan (Bruce Willis of “Hostage”). On his last day on the job he stops a child molester intent on raping and killing a young girl. The man he stops is the son of a powerful politician, who frames him for murder.

A related story has Marv (Mickey Rourke of “Man on Fire”) also framed for murder. It happens to be the murder of the only woman he ever loved, and he vows to find whoever did it and to make them pay. Marv is an unstoppable force in the movie, torturing and killing his way to top of a corrupt pyramid of power. Marv is a brute, but he can't stand people who would hurt a woman.

Another story has yet another defender of women, a private detective, Dwight (Clive Owen of “Closer”), who defends his girlfriend, Brittany Murphy, from a brutal corrupt cop called Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro of “21 Grams”). Dwight teams up with the deadly hookers of Sin City, including his old flame, Gail (Rosario Dawson of “Alexander”) to repel an attempt to overthrow the established order of the outlaw district called Sin City.

The only thing close to a conventional hero in the film is the cop, John Hartigan (maybe that's why he has a scar like a Christian cross on his forehead). The other heroes, Marv and Dwight, are morally ambiguous at best. The type of justice dispensed here is similar to that of the Old West, where vigilantes dispatched outlaws with guns and ropes. A recent western, “Open Range,” had a very similar story with a corrupt sheriff and a morally ambiguous hero. Marv is the darkest of the heroes with a wide mean streak, no mercy and a heart set more on revenge than justice. In every instance, all three heroes had a single motivation, and that is love.

The idea of mixing sex and violence isn't new, of course, nor is the idea of bringing cartoon characters to life, but this film has a unique look to it. Mickey Rourke's makeup builds his face up to the point where it is a caricature of a face. Another character, who glows bright yellow, looks like an alien from outer space. Most of the film is shot in black and white, making it a lot like the old film noir movies of the 1940s and 50s both in look and substance. In addition to the black and white images, color is used for emphasis, a bright red car, red lips, green eyes, faint skin tones. Probably the closest thing to this movie in visual impact is “Dick Tracy” which also featured its own unique visual style and grotesque makeup.

The film has an all star cast. Stars even inhabit minor roles in the film. Director Robert Rodriguez (Quentin Tarantino also directed some scenes in the film), who works fast, said during a recent interview he was able to sign up a number of stars because he could keep their time commitments to a bare minimum, usually just hours or a few days at most. Most of the scenes in the film are shot in front of a green screen, so there are a bare minimum of sets and props to set up. Rodriguez works out of his home and does his own editing, so his overhead and budgets are always rock bottom. Despite all that, his movies always look a lot more expensive than they are, and he is a very accomplished and successful director.

Sin City could not be more different than the colorful, family-oriented films of the “Spy Kids” series directed earlier by Rodriguez. This film is darker, dirtier and grittier than anything he's done before, including the horror flick “From Dusk Til Dawn.” In fact, few other films can match “Sin City” for grittiness. It is filled with ultra-violence, partial nudity, overt sexuality and potboiler melodrama. Some have called it misogynistic, but I think it degrades men more than it does women, except for one notable incident when the film opens. The three main heroes of the movie devote all their time and passion to protecting and avenging women. Two of them make the ultimate sacrifice for the women they love, and all of them risk it. That is not misogyny. The film is certainly overtly sado-masochistic, complete with leather, whips, chains, torture and mutilation. This is the sort of thing that gives Hollywood movies a bad name. Social critics feel this kind of movie lowers the moral standards of the audience. They might be right. Artists always feel compelled to push moral limits. There seems to be no end to this struggle, and no moral bottom, either.

Despite all the stars (Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Elijah Wood, Bruce Willis, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Clarke Duncan, Carla Gugino, Josh Hartnett, Michael Madsen, Brittany Murphy, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Maria Bello and Nick Stahl) there is very little real acting in the film. Actors go through the motions in front of the ubiquitous green screen, but the expressions on their faces hardly ever change. For most of the actors, the set of their jaw, the line of their brows and mouths, remain unchanged from beginning to end. They're acting like robots. If you hear people talking about great acting in this movie, take such comments with a grain of salt. The people who are saying such things are being seduced by the look of the film. It's like those people who said David Carradine deserved an academy award nomination for his work in “Kill Bill Vol. 2.” I don't know what those people were smoking. Carradine's performance was like all of his performances, minimal.

There is a little acting in “Sin City,” mostly by women characters in distress, like Jessica Alba and Brittany Murphy, but it isn't acting that's got the critics excited about this film, it is the look of it and its sado-masochistic horror. The plot is repetitive and predictable. The dialogue is often hackneyed. The violence is wearisome. The film is both slick and sick. After a while, I felt slimed, covered with a film like the ring around a bathtub, but there is no denying the film's look and its power. It rates a B.

For more information on this film, including characters, the film (synopsis, production notes, cast, filmmakers), media, downloads, books, fan central, games, click on this link to the official home page of Sin City.

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Copyright © 2005 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)