Classic Movies: Sin City (2005)

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Directors: Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez
Screenwriter: Frank Miller
Based on the comic series of the same name by Frank Miller
Cast: Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Nick Stahl, Elijah Wood, Rosario Dawson & Jaime King
Runtime: 124 min // Certificate: 18

Despite a nine year hiatus and a killer cast list to boast of, a combination of terrible marketing and a decidedly lukewarm critical reception seems to have sunk A Dame to Kill For – the sequel to 2005’s “cult classic” Sin City – before it ever got chance to leave the harbour. Were I not a regular cinemagoer I doubt even I’d have known that such a sequel even existed, so non-existent has the commercial campaign been, so it’s of little surprise to me that the film has all but bombed.

Now, until very recently I thought this was a genuine shame. If retrograde garbage like Transformers: Age of Extinction can rake in millions upon billions upon gazillions of pounds in a single weekend, and an adaptation of the single worst sitcom ever made can top the UK Box Office for weeks on end, surely Sin City 2 deserves a moment in the spotlight. After all, it’s one of the greatest films of the last decade, right? Eh? Right…?

Well, that’s what I used to think too. Now, however, I’m not remotely convinced. I mean alright, let me explain. So I consider myself a politically astute kinda guy, y’know? I vote, I get into heated debates down the pub about whether or not the Prime Minister should have his bollocks ritually removed with a scythe, and I’m blocked by an above-average number of MPs of all colours on Twitter, so I must be doing something right. Nonetheless, despite all of this, I seem to have missed the blindingly obvious fact that Frank Miller – the creator of Sin City – is a raging, frothing-at-the-mouth and chomping-on-the-furniture fascist.

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As a teenager, swept away by the visceral visuals and the hyper-violence that is intrinsic to the very design of Sin City, it was easy to ignore – or fail to recognise – the loathsome politics at play in every frame of the film’s make-up. With its monochrome palette, splattered with primary colours – blood reds, nauseous yellows and jealous greens – it has the look, the feel and the stylistic thrust of the comic book series upon which it is based. It sucks you in with a style that at the time of its release was rather unique, at least in popular, semi-mainstream cinema, yet when you take a peek beneath the stylish veneer for more than a moment, you find a film that is built entirely upon fetid ideals, dangerous beliefs and, perhaps most unforgivably of all, a rank ignorance of everything that “neo-noir” is meant to represent.

The film is a simple adaptation of three separate stories in Miller’s canon – “The Hard Goodbye”, “The Big Fat Kill” and “That Yellow Bastard” – all of which are intertwined both narratively and thematically. Directed by both Miller and Rodriguez (Spy Kids), each story conforms to simple but consistent themes – corruption, paranoia, hyper-violence and masculinity – to stress the reality of life in Basin City, yet rather than attack the subjugation of women, the venality of authority or the rank social and economic inequalities that plague every section of Miller’s microcosmic World, both directors indulge it in a manner that is at best uncritical, at worst fetishized.

Let’s look at an example. In Miller’s ultraviolent, hyper-masculine World, a woman’s sole purpose is to fulfil and conform to the fantasies of wretched men. That’s it. That’s all she is expected to do. When women aren’t damsels in distress or the playthings of corrupt, powerful males, they’re caricatures of “strong women”. In each of the three stories, all of which follow the same, basic structure, the female characters are treated as though they are part of the decoration. They exist not to provide plot progression or a moral compass to counteract the vile activities of their male counterparts, but to accommodate the visuals. They blend in with the monochrome palette, their best features reduced to a flash of lipstick, a flutter of an eyelash or a sensual pose. It’s film-noir, written by someone who has never seen a decent film-noir in his life. Can you imagine Lauren Bacall or Mary Astor taking any of Bogie’s shit the way the women in this film do? Of course you can’t, because the females in film noir were powerful, multi-dimensional and authentic.

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In Sin City, by contrast, almost all of the women are portrayed as prostitutes, strippers or pole dancers, all of whom Miller seems to hate. What little critique there is of their existence isn’t directed at the putrid society that has reduced women to these roles, but at the women themselves. Miller doesn’t hate just hate prostitution, he also hates prostitutes. The words “slut”, “whore” and “bitch” are thrown around without purpose or meaning. They’re descriptors that are used uncritically. When the characters tell us that we shouldn’t care about “some dead hooker”, Miller does nothing to counter this view. It’s trite, matter-of-fact filmmaking, shrouded in a suggestive veneer that purports to hate this wretched society but does nothing to actually challenge it.

Sin City is little more than a visual representation of Miller’s neo-fascist fantasies, splayed out for all and sundry to gawp at, in which all of the ideas are reduced to their most base elements. It is a film that lacks both subtlety (as evidenced by its constant Nazi symbolism) and meaning. It is the epitome, to coin a phrase, of “style over substance”. The only remotely interesting story in its two-hour plus runtime is a three-minute tale called “The Customer is Always Right”, which bookends the bulk of the film, while everything else is contemptible, pulpy trash. Once you get past the initial themes of corruption, paranoia and greed, all of which run through the piece like a sewer, bubbling away with a fetid stench, with no actual plot to bind them together, you find a film that is empty. It dabbles in violence for violence’s sake, and thus renders itself purposeless.

As a teenager, I loved this film. If I never see it again, it’ll be too soon. It gets two stars for the performances alone. The rest is hateful, and I don’t know why I ever liked it in the first place.

★★

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