Volume 23, Number 04, Summer 2005

Sin City

Directed by Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarrantino

Starring Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis Dimension Films, 2005
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
July 2005

Sin City started out as a comic book by Frank Miller; the film version is one among many recent adaptations of comic books to the screen. But this one has some differences. Unlike most such projects, it’s not about the adventures of superheroes. Rather, it’s in the genre of crime stories, done in a noir style. There are some minor fantastic elements, but that’s not the point of the film. Rather, as having Quentin Tarantino involved in it might suggest, its focus is on action and combat, with the violence depicted in a cinematically exaggerated style.

But it’s not a simple film; viewers who don’t stay in focus are likely to get lost. The events of the film weave together three different stories from the comic, with three different protagonists. The different storylines share some locations, supporting characters, and villains; as a result, the viewer gets a more complete picture of each of these than the protagonists can have. The time sequence doesn’t seem to be linear, and the connections among the three storylines aren’t always made explicit.

What does seem to connect them is a common theme: personal integrity and its expression in battle. Sin City’s male heroes each form relationships with a woman who is the victim of other men’s violence. To protect those women, or in one case to avenge one of them, they use violence in return, and they endure violence, injury, and suffering. Raymond Chandler famously wrote that the private eye hero of hard-boiled detective fiction must be a man of honor, without ever saying so; the heroes of this film fit that pattern—and, like warrior heroes of many epics, their most important gift is the ability to endure pain and injury and go on with their struggle.

Not that all the women in this film wait for men to rescue them. Two of the three storylines involve the red light district of Basin City (nicknamed “Sin City”) and an extraordinary organization that operates there: an alliance of prostitutes for mutual defense. One of the three stories shows their organization in action, from dealing with customers who behave abusively to fighting a small-scale war against an attempt to take over their territory and end their independence. The vision of weapons ownership as the root of freedom is as vivid here as in anything L. Neil Smith ever wrote, and libertarians ought to be cheering for it.

And the other side is also one that will make sense to libertarians. Turning up all through the connected stories are the Roarks, two wealthy and powerful brothers, one a Catholic bishop, the other a senator, who are symbols of the corruption of power. Corrupt city government is the great enemy in Sin City, ready to cover up the rape of an eleven-year-old girl or frame the police officer who saved her.

This isn’t intended to be a realistic film; everything in it is exaggerated, larger than life, almost to the point of fantasy. But, like most good action/adventure films, it’s a story about good and evil at war; and the line between good and evil is drawn with more subtlety than usual, and in a way readers of Prometheus are likely to find sympathetic. And it’s filmed with a consistent visual style that perfectly conveys these qualities, as consciously planned as the style of the German Expressionist films of the 1920s. Film adaptations of comic books have ranged from the good (as in X2) to the appalling (as in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen); Frank Miller’s work may have been adapted better than any other comic book that has ever been filmed.

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