With few exceptions, critics are fawning over the new film, Sin City, which is based on Frank Miller’s famed comics and which grabbed the number-one box-office spot in its opening week. As violent and stylized as anything in the film-noir canon, from which the film borrows heavily, Sin City has been described as so electrifying that it “kisses the blood right off its own violent hands” (Chicago Tribune). The film does indeed have a stunning look, but nothing more. Its sole focus is on surface aesthetics. The slender plot-lines–there are three of them–are merely the occasion for what one character calls the “pure hateful bloodthirsty joy of slaughter.” Long before its two hours expires, the film’s exquisite style has become tedious, hollow, and the drama itself, a colossal bore.
This is not to say that Sin City has trouble filling the time or the screen. It overflows with spurting blood, decapitations, severed heads, dogs eating human bodies, cannibalism, and vomiting. It culminates in a decisive battle whose victor manages to rip the genitals off of his opponent and then smash his skull. (You might want to hold off on the nachos for this one.)
The film is situated precariously between the two-dimensional, frame-by-frame world of comic books and a mobile world with flesh-and-blood actors. In this, it resembles last year’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which combined human actors, a computer-generated environment, and odd coloration. In this case, the color scheme is mostly black and white, with occasional flashes of bright red for female dresses, lipstick and blood, and blanched spots to demarcate blood spots and injuries. Sin City’s choreographed fight scenes and its sumptuously detailed presentation of violent mayhem call to mind Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, as does the dialogue, which degenerates rapidly into NPR-style parody of the noir detective voiceover.
Although Tarantino gets a director’s credit for assisting on a certain segment of the film, the central vision–and full director’s credit–is Miller’s, with assistance from Robert Rodriguez. The devotion to Miller’s sacred text is apparent throughout, but the decision to use easily recognizable actors such as Elijah Wood, Benicio del Toro, Jessica Alba, and Bruce Willis gives Sin City the feel of a Tarantino satire on pop culture. The viewer cannot help but be distracted from Miller’s vision into thinking, “That’s Bruce Willis reprising his role from Die Hard or Pulp Fiction,” or muttering, “Wow, that’s Benicio del Toro whose skull has just been turned into a ‘pez dispenser,’” or wondering, “Is that actually Elijah Wood playing a rapist-cannibal in league with the local Catholic cardinal?”
Media talking heads have been bubbling about the timing of Sin City’s rise to the top of the charts on the very weekend during which Pope John Paul II died. A dramatic contrast to be sure, but beyond that it is not clear what the point of the media attention is. The timing was of course pure coincidence, unless we think the pope held on just to provide a counterpoint to decadent American film. Nor is such a contrast unprecedented. Just last year, The Passion was unseated from its number-one ranking by Kill Bill, Volume II. Sin City’s in-your-face mockery of religion locates the Catholic clergy and its sacramental system at the very heart of this corrupt world.
That issue is of little concern to the film’s big draw, Jessica Alba, who is nonetheless eager to rebut the accusation that the film is misogynistic. “The women,” she contends, “are completely empowered.” Why? Because “it’s not just women being victimized. It’s everybody.” Although hardly virtuous, the central male character in each of the subplots does desire to protect the innocent–all scantily clad women. Alba’s character, an icon of innocence in the film, displays innocence mainly as a way of increasing sexual arousal. All she lacks is the school-girl uniform from Britney Spears’s first music video.
For all its noir trappings, Sin City feels less like the 1940s and more like the 1990s, the period in which Miller wrote his comics and in which Tarantino broke new ground with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But Sin City lacks the wit and timing of early Tarantino. Instead, it is an endless variation on the single Pulp Fiction theme of “getting medieval” on your enemy. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the filmmakers are, as Willis’s character describes a pair of ambitious criminals, “thugs with delusions of eloquence.”
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.