Sin City

English Title: Sin City

Country of Origin: USA

Director: Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino

Producer(s): Elizabeth Avellan, Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez

Screenplay: Frank Miller

Cinematographer: Robert Rodriguez

Editor: Robert Rodriguez

Runtime: 124 minutes

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Hartnett, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis

Year: 2005

Volume: American - Independent

Ruled over by the Roark family, Basin City is a hive of urban squalor, political and moral corruption, and lawlessness. Retiring cop Hartigan metes out justice by shooting off the genitals of sadistic paedophile Roark Jr. Hartigan gets framed for the abduction and rape of Nancy, and sentenced to prison. He eventually confesses to the rape and is let out, but it is a trap to lead Jr to Nancy, so that he may take out terrible revenge for his disfigurement. After being framed for a hooker’s murder, superhuman hoodlum Marv sets out to avenge her murder, leading him to Cardinal Roarke and his cannibal protégé, Kevin. After killing Shellie’s violent ex-boyfriend Jackie Boy in the prostitute-run Old Town, Dwight discovers that Jackie Boy is a cop, and that he has broken an uneasy truce between the Ladies, the police, and the Mob. It leads to all-out war in which the Ladies have to fight for their right to autonomy. The three main stories are bookended by a sequence featuring a hitman known as The Man, whose interior monologue attempts to justify his contract killings as somehow resetting the moral balance of this awful city of sin.


One way of thinking about Sin City is that it is a cartoon: its sadism redolent of Tom and Jerry or Roadrunner animations, the violence is so over-the-top that you wonder where the spectacle lies. Is it in the fact that the actors are shot entirely against a stylized CGI backdrop? Or, rather, is the violence so extreme as to be rendered spectacular? Furthermore, Sin City is described in academic circles as not only a violent film, but that the violence therein reflects a kind of ‘homosexual panic’: sexuality is reduced to spectacular, caricatured and repeated assaults on male genitalia, both verbal and physical, throughout.


It is, perhaps, unfair to judge Sin City on the standards of cinema in this way, as it adheres so well to its origins as a hyper-violent dystopian comic-book vision of urban America, and the corruption that exists at all levels of a deeply-disturbed and alienated society. Sure enough, the homophobia and misogyny underlying much of the story-world here is troublesome, and not untypical of the graphic novel as a narrative form. The episodic nature of the narrative, for example, betrays that kind of loosely-linked storytelling that gives comic books their charm and strength, even as some of the content can be described as morally-suspect. In addition, the large ensemble cast, loosely-related narrative strands, and stylized graphics make it difficult to critique according to the conventions of film study, but Sin City does replicate some of the excesses of the violent action-thriller, and takes its narrative and visual cues from the rich library of film noir, nonetheless.


Quentin Tarantino’s involvement as ‘guest director’ is slight (he contributes the Jackie Boy corpse sequence), but works as a marketing ploy to draw a mainstream audience into Frank Miller’s rather dark storyworld. What Rodriguez himself has managed here is a strange hybrid of his twin careers as director: Tarantino-esque violent thrillers, such as El Mariachi (1992) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), and children’s fantasy-adventures, such as his Spy Kids series. There are, therefore, some standout sequences in the film that enable the viewer to engage the characters with some sympathy. The damaged and ogre-like Marv, despite inflicting horrific carnage upon several peripheral characters in the film, nevertheless adheres to a grey moral code, and, in a role that Mickey Rourke was seemingly born to play, he gives one of the performances of his career. He manages to elicit pathos through the strange, almost autobiographical back-story: what we are witnessing in Marv’s rejection is a mirror of Rourke’s return to mainstream film-making after years in the wilderness and the loss of the good looks of his youth.

Author of this review: Greg Singh