Upon the release of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, Pauline Kael dubbed it "the first American film that is a fascist piece of art." One could certainly argue to what extent Peckinpah celebrates the violence in that film (or any of his others, for that matter), but Kael's supremely backhanded compliment -- her overall review was actually positive -- tumbles around the back of my head whenever I sit down with one of my favorite lazy day movies: Robert Rodriguez's Sin City.
More than Grindhouse, on which Rodriguez of course worked, Sin City embraces and celebrates kitsch, its bawdy, ham-fisted B-noir revival as marvelously warped and questionably moral as it was on the pages of Frank Miller's scattershot miniseries. Collecting the finest of Miller's collection for a series of ghastly vignettes, Sin City plays to the strengths of both its visionaries and emphasizes the ties that bind them: campy ultraviolence, stilted dialogue and DIY technical sizzle.
Indeed, Sin City ranks as one of the more innovative uses of computer animation in film, nearly flawless in its creation of the noir-iest noir world ever made. It's filled with Gothic arches, high ceilings, creepy dives, bright lights, dark shadows and so much more. Its crisp, high-definition back-and-white photography adds to the atmosphere, and the occasional flash of color across the screen -- be it red blood, a Yellow Bastard or the irresistible azure eyes of Alexis Bledel -- only burns the images further into our heads. Rodriguez so respects Miller's work that, apart from giving the author a co-director credit (something, judging from the commentary, he richly deserved), he transplants the look of the comics almost exactly from page to screen. Now, of course, we've all seen Zack Snyder move this aesthetic choice up to and too far beyond its limits, first celebrating some of Miller's basest instincts with 300 then utterly missing the point of Alan Moore's seminal Watchmen. Here, however, the minds of the two creative forces meet in harmony, and luckily the material is thick enough that not much rides on capturing both the aesthetic and the moral.
That's not to say that Sin City lacks for cleverness, even outright satire, however. Quite the opposite: Sin City paints a portrait of a city that makes Gotham look like Boca Raton. It's so governed by corruption, deception and the wild abandon that comes with a short life expectancy that the entire place seeps and oozes, putrid water running down chipped bricks as if the buildings themselves bleed from the violence within and around them. Denizens stand mere feet from deplorable acts of violence and react as if watching a card trick they've already seen.
It's a crazy world, and, naturally, crazy characters inhabit it. John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), the only clean cop on the force, rides near the beginning to top the son of a vile senator from raping and murdering a tween, along the way dispatching his corrupt partner and a pair of comically faux-erudite thugs who pop up occasionally to run through thesauri in a desperate attempt to outpace their stupidity. He finally catches up to "Junior" (Nick Stahl) and takes away his weapons -- "both of them," he says before shooting the rapist in a sensitive area, beginning a recurring motif that speaks either to Miller's deep fear of emasculation or his sly subversion of his own material's machismo (I'm on the fence) -- before that pesky partner returns and lulls Hartigan into a coma with the unstoppable flatness of Michael Madsen's speech.
Rodriguez then cuts to the story of Marv, indisputably the most interesting segment of the film and the true sign of Mickey Rourke's relevancy three years before The Wrestler. As he did with Randy the Ram, Rourke imbues Marv with the broken-down world-weariness he gained through hard living. Sporting thick prosthetic makeup that potentially improves Rourke's battered face, the actor plays a character so ugly he could never even buy a woman, a tank made of muscles and blood who never allowed his rejection to color his attitude toward women; though he speaks in typically sexist '50s gab -- using words like "dame" -- and discusses his unwillingness to harm women in broadly patriarchal tones, he doesn't foist his sexual frustration on those who deny them and reserves his ire for anyone he spots roughing up a lady. He's like an athlete, saving it all for the game, if the game involved ripping people apart with bare hands.
The seediest elements of the city awaken the sleeping giant when they murder the first woman to ever make love to him. "Goldie," Marv grumbles reverentially, her flaxen hair lighting up around her head like the angel Marv believes she is. But the next morning he finds her dead beside him with cops on the way to arrest him for her murder, and if we can infer that Marv was angry before he experienced happiness in his life, we can scarcely fathom just how pissed off he is when some unseen force snatches that away from him. Rourke has never been more vicious on-screen, plowing through thugs on his way to the top and ripping information out of those who might know where to find the next rung, always in manners both comical and terrifying. Only Rourke could pull off the role, molding a killing machine around a core of pathos and sympathy, and even if rooting for him means supporting a fascist juggernaut, I can't help but look into that fearsome mug and hope he "wins."
Near the end of the film, Rodriguez returns to Hartigan's story, the director's nonlinear structure appropriate for Miller's synchronous tales. Senator Roark visits Hartigan in the hospital and plots revenge for ending his son's reproductive capacity, and the entire digital world collapses. The city disappears, replaced by a cramped jail cell set against infinite black, the high contrast of the white bars instantly conveying the complete isolation Hartigan finds himself in for being a true hero in a town that has suffered for so long it no longer recognizes them. Upon his release, he finds the girl he saved, Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), only for Junior to return, now a sickly, fluorescent yellow thanks to experimental procedures meant to regrow his "weapon." While Marv was driven by revenge, Hartigan's motivation is keeping Nancy alive, a motivation that proves no less powerful. Hartigan doesn't connect the way Marv does, the difference between the two characters mirroring the differing emotional resonance of, say, Mickey Rourke and Bruce "Yippie-Ki-Yay" Willis, but I daresay Willis appears to be having a blast as the grizzled veteran cop and that enthusiasm makes him appealing where his performance leaves me cold.
Ladies finally get to join in on the fun, though, with the final major arc, The Big Fat Kill. Centered on a man, Dwight (Clive Owen), the arc is nevertheless propelled by the women: first by Dwight's girlfriend Shellie (Brittany Murphy at her most spit-fiery), then by his ex-, Gail (Rosario Dawson), leader of the city's sector of prostitutes and, eventually, by a traitorous young hooker who makes some incredible poor decisions in a panic (Bledel). A deliciously macabre sense of humor pervades the film, but where the other two chief segments balanced out the camp with serious (but never self-serious) plots, The Big Fat Kill takes the highway to cartooniness and waves middle fingers every time it passes an exit that might lead to some semblance of sanity. The prostitutes all have extensive gun training and a number are skilled martial artists; the dubious fascism receives its clearest representation in the form of throwing stars shaped as swastikas; Irish mercenaries stage an ambush at a tar pit; and a showdown between whores and the mob for the fate of Old Town. It's goddamn chaos, basically.
Its centerpiece, guest-directed by Quentin Tarantino, involves Dwight disposing of the bodies of Jack (Benicio del Toro) -- Shellie's abusive ex- and a dirty cop who brings about his doom when he threatens to kill a hooker in Old Town -- and his cohorts. With Jackie Boy's mutilated corpse in the passenger seat because the trunk couldn't hold any more flesh, Dwight's ride to the tar pits morphs into an extended homage to Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, in which Dwight holds a hallucinatory conversation with Jackie. The use of color in the sequence only adds to the oneiric quality, the gentle wave of headlights and police sirens on flesh washing over the faces of the two characters and clashing beautifully with the monochrome.
Deceptively impressive in the scripting of these loopy characters is the way Miller gently links the stories through the people. Hartigan, like Marv, places the woman in his life on a pedestal, but he succeeded in protecting her where Marv failed to save Goldie (Jaime King); both King and Alba have the most rigid parts in the film, made worse by their inability to bring anything to the role. Yet they work, as they're placed on such high pedestals that you can't get a close enough look to let the flaws distract. The two actresses find counterpoints in the far more dynamic performances of Murphy (whose character works the same bar as Alba's Nancy) and Dawson (also one of the Old Town prostitutes along with Goldie). Dwight's fever dream conversation with Jackie recalls Marv's occasional, somber mentions of the pills he takes and the "distractions" that come when he misses a dose. These threads give dimensionality to a film that adamantly wishes to remain a 2-D comic strip, and they complement the numerous digs at church and state and the way the two still collude and still harshly punish people for rules that simply do not apply to them.
Following the bittersweet ending of Hartigan's story, Sin City closes with a bookend of the brief opening segment involving a hitman known as "The Salesman" (Josh Hartnett). He tracks down a character to deliver a richly deserved comeuppance and, despite the wooden nature of Hartnett in general as well as the kooky nature of the film, delivers perhaps the best summary of the endless allure of this two-hour hyperviolent escapist fantasy. "Turn the right corner in Sin City, and you can find anything," he drawls, "...Anything."