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Sin City (Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller, 2005)
With much hype, and a possibly unprecedented division of directorial credit, Robert Rodriguez’ adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic book Sin City arrives on screen in a form that bears more resemblance to its source material than anyone might have guessed. In predictable Hollywood form, it makes the translation from the page with toned down sexual content and inflated violence, but largely the feel of the projects is identical. Starting by using Miller’s published books as storyboards, Rodriquez tries to convert the look and feel of the comic medium directly to film, and in doing so engages in a hopelessly reductive game that places fidelity above cinematic virtue. Incessant voiceovers, the nonstop musical score, and the totalitarian visual programming conspire make a movie that’s been so thoroughly processed, so free of spontaneity, that it’s impossible to find much pleasure in watching it. Nothing breathes here. No moment seems to progress emotionally from another. Individual scenes hold together, but they feel, like their printed counterparts, trapped in a border that separates them from the whole. There’s little room for interpretation in this hermetic universe, and the audience member can either absorb it all like a sponge or be shut out from it completely. Unfortunately, my experience was the latter one.
An anthology of three tawdry revenge tales, each featuring a man under the influence who kills in a woman’s name, Sin City hardly tries to be original. The three stories recycle and amplify stock noir plots, to no apparent end. Rodriguez inflates the fatalism inherent in noir to comic proportions here, yet still expects us to find it “cool”. The film is a parade of deaths that are frequently neither cool, nor funny. Above all else, they’re never mourned. Life’s cheapness in this world is supposed to give us a giddy thrill, but such an exercise in juvenile cynicism ends up cheapening the characters more than anything. With nothing at stake, comedy becomes the movie’s only reason for being, and it’s simply not as funny as it seems to think it is (the overcooked noir narration is particularly strained). Perhaps the most egregious sequence invokes the church in an attempt to make us giggle at its nastiness. The joke falls flat, however, and the only result is a bad taste in one’s mouth.
Somewhere between the transfer from video, the high contrast black and white cinematography, and Rodriquez’s hyperactive cutting, the projected film almost became physically nauseating for me to watch at times, particularly during the hyperactive Mickey Rourke segment. The movie's a visual workout, but the artifice of it all gets to be exasperating. Who can take interest in anything when every arterial spray is so completely highlighted, yet so meaningless? Rodriguez splashes color across his frame mostly when he wants to ramp up the level of intensity, which makes the film’s black and white aesthetic just feel like an arbitrary gimmick. Incidentally, the one scene made by “special guest director” Quentin Tarantino bucks that trend, featuring a flurry of color flashes that suggests the monochrome nature of Sin City is just a state of mind.
Sin City's noir trappings are just empty attitude. It walks the walk and talks the talk, but feels slavishly devoted to its source for devotion’s sake. For all of its bluescreen wizardry, it fails to generate any atmosphere. From first time CGI fog rolls across the screen, it reveals itself as a sham. Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that the cast is essentially reduced to a series of models. Laughable performances abound (the troupe of singularly unsexy strippers are universally awful). The majority of the actors can’t sell either their dialogue or their outfit (each of which share equal importance in Sin City’s scheme of things). Only Clive Owen gives what could be described as a good performance. Mickey Rourke, struggling under a mountain of makeup effects, tries valiantly but fails to capture even a smidgeon of the scuzzy charm he managed to bring to the infinitely superior neo-noir Angel Heart. To bring up other neo-noirs in comparison to Sin City’s meaningless action movie histrionics almost seems an insult to them, but next to the striking, relevant genre work of directors like John Dahl, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma, this is wholly inadequate.