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Sin City

Sin City feels like a comic book in all the wrong ways. 
Based on a series of graphic novels created by Frank Miller, Sin City is a horrific display of masculine power fantasies. Adolescent in the worst meaning of the word, the film charges through its three violent vignettes with the subtlety of a rape. Laying bare any convenient excuses for its violence, it is a celebration of the nasty, crude underpinning of the comic book genre, where every little boy wants to be Superman, not so he can save the world, but so he can take whatever he wants, when he wants it.
Sin City’s heroes are monsters waiting for the opportunity to unleash their pent-up frustrations, punish their enemies, and take whatever buxom woman happens to be in the vicinity. Sin City doesn’t so much blur the distinctions of good and evil as reveal our juvenile fascination with power, which explains why the characters don’t buy into the conceit that with great power comes great responsibility – for them, power is ultimate justification and might makes right. 
The film is a raging success as a dissertation on the fragile nature of masculinity. Returning over and over again to impotence and castration, Sin City’s foundation is unstable and volatile. The men in the film struggle with the knowledge that power can be taken away; bodies can be rent and dismembered; and women somehow slip away from the tightest grip.
For has-been do-gooder Hartigan (Bruce Willis), an ex-cop, it’s the specter of old age that dogs him, reminding him that he won’t always be the biggest gun in the city. He chides himself about it in his voice-over, telling himself to get it up as he tries to force his gun at a child molester after being shot in the arm. Just get it up, old man, do this one thing… But when he’s actually presented with a young nubile, he flails around, unable to will himself to do the one thing that would prove his manhood.
After a whore deflowers the hideous thug Marv (Mickey Rourke) and is later killed in their nuptial bed, the brute rampages through the city in search of her murderer. Cursed with the knowledge that he will never find that sort of embrace again – never be fully a man – he batters everything in his path. At one point he pummels a mercenary until he is just pulp and bones, but he still can’t exhaust his rage over his lost masculinity.
In a third vignette Dwight (Clive Owen) fights to try to restore order between the whores of Old Town and the city’s police department. Although he tells us in the voice-over that the whores have absolute domain over Old Town, only Dwight is capable of unknotting the mob conspiracy that threatens peace. The only happy heterosexual outcome of the film – possibly because he’s not ugly like Marv or old like Hartigan – Dwight tames the whore princess by teaching her that she’s incapable of protecting herself. 
First, of course, he must best a competitor by beheading him in a symbolic act of castration. The head is then passed over as a sign of potency and turned into the ultimate weapon: A speaking phallus, a grisly magic flute. 
The masculine imaginary is cluttered with these types of images, but Sin City obsessively translates this language into the reality of violence. When a child molester misuses the phallus Hartigan takes it away – literally – and when it is somehow magically reconstructed it is once again up to the old warrior to sever it. Women wielding swords threaten the masculine order by suggesting that the phallus can be usurped, and the world is only corrected when the whores return to their “natural” fallen position beneath Dwight. It isn’t until Marv is given sex freely that he’s able to choke down his rage.  
Combining Miller’s own style with artful direction by the comic book auteur, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino, Sin City is certainly a distinctive film. The film’s stylistic cues are exaggerated film noir, but unlike last year’s Sky Captain there’s something beneath the surface. Unfortunately that something probably should have remained buried beneath the ground.
The comic book renaissance that Miller helped usher in wasn’t as one-dimensional as Sin City. It’s heroes were fully developed characters struggling with their powers, not simple caricatures embodying adolescent desires. And although a lot has been made of the film’s innovative style, something human has been lost in the translation.

 

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