The last few years have seen a deluge of graphic novel adaptations hitting the big screen, from the critically lauded Batman franchise to the (ahem) slightly less enthusiastically received Green Lantern effort. In my opinion, however, none have managed to so majestically capture the essence of the comic book format on film as Sin City—a movie which its director, Robert Rodriguez, describes as more of a ‘translation’ than an adaptation, a result of close collaboration with the novel’s creator, Frank Miller.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Sin City is its heavily stylised look.
Rodriguez’s use of green screen and high-definition digital cameras was actually fairly innovative back in the early “noughties” (even though it’s a lot more prevalent now) and it’s this fully-digital approach—combined with stunning black and white rendering, with the odd splash of searing, piercing colour—that give Sin City its unique, neo-noir visual style and help to make this grimy city such a beguiling place.
We’re introduced to the lawless, titular town via the uncharacteristically classy setting of a penthouse balcony, where a tuxedo-clad Josh Hartnett approaches a beautiful, anonymous, and melancholic woman. His romantic overtures are swiftly followed by an embrace, and then the whisper-quiet sound of a silenced gunshot as he shoots her—it’s a disarming moment that sets the tone for the rest of the film, leaving the audience yearning to know more, before the action veers away to another location, another story.
In fact, there are three main strands to Sin City’s narrative and three central characters, all loosely connected and all sharing one main trait: their resounding anti-hero status. John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) opens the action and is perhaps the most sympathetic of the three: a world-weary but honourable cop on the cusp of retirement. He can’t quit the force without performing one last duty—saving a young girl from a depraved child-molester and murderer, the son of the powerful Senator Roark, whose family holds the city in a vice-like grip (with emphasis on the vice).
Hartigan’s story is picked up again later, following a decade of imprisonment, allowing for an interlude that introduces us to the next protagonist: the mentally unstable, grotesquely disfigured and highly chivalrous Marv (Mickey Rourke). Marv’s story is one of retribution, as he attempts to avenge the murder of Goldie (Jamie King), a prostitute who seeks his protection.
The final strand follows the exploits of Dwight (Clive Owen), an ex-con who finds himself caught in the middle of the warring factions of the mob, the police, and Sin City’s formidable community of prostitutes after intervening to protect his lover from a deeply unpleasant ex-boyfriend, Jackie Boy—played deliciously by Benicio del Toro.
Sin City draws heavily on film noir tropes and conventions with its terse, sardonic dialogue, monochrome visuals, femme fatales and quasi-1920s lexicon (‘dames’ and ‘broads’ feature heavily)—ticking all the boxes so astutely observed by James Lileks on noir archetypes:
“You need cops, venetian blinds, lots of smoking, hats, sweat, dead-end streets, guys who know all the angles except for the one that ends up sticking out of their backs. Sirens of the automotive and female kind.”
The film’s protagonists could also be described as typically noir. In each tale, they’re the roguish underdogs—the morally grey lone crusaders attempting to take a stand against the corrupt and perverted authorities in defense of the women who, in one way or another, have captured their hearts.
Interestingly, although Hartigan, Marv and Dwight resort to incredibly violent measures in their respective quests—and indeed, the film has been criticised for its extreme depiction of torture, violence and riotous bloodshed—there’s still something fundamentally likeable about them, which makes you emotionally invested in their plight.
Much of this affinity is achieved through the audience being given an insight into the protagonists’ thoughts via interior monologue expressing their motivations, fears, and justifications. It certainly doesn’t hurt that these internal monologues, and the dialogue in general, is sharp, incisive, witty, and brimming with wry one-liners. It’s a similar technique that helps to make Dexter’s eponymous serial killer Dexter Morgan so paradoxically charming.
While some may criticize Sin City for being all style and no substance, I think it does give the audience some food for thought—raising questions about the ability of power to corrupt, the complicity of wider society in accepting the status quo, misogyny and patriarchy, and the timeless moral dilemma of honesty and sacrifice over selfish gain. On top of this, it’s visually stunning, expertly paced, sharply written, and boasts a stellar cast—making its status as a cult classic thoroughly deserved.