Frank Miller's Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Directed by Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez. Starring Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Boothe, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Stacy Keach, Jaime King, Juno Temple, Marton Csokas. (2014, R, 102 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 22, 2014
Nine years after the first film, the bruisers and dames of Frank Miller’s Sin City are back doing what they do best: throwing their bodies and souls into life’s furnace, where they are steeled for the slings and arrows that will, inevitably, come their way. Miller’s graphic novels and the two films derived from his stories (which he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez) belong to a film noir universe in which the future is always impossible, the present rancid, and the past a jangled mass of foreboding. Any attempt to change this cesspool’s status quo is futile: Forget it, Jake; it’s Sin City.
Visually, the film’s technique is thrilling. There’s hardly a camera setup anywhere that doesn’t look like it could be a frame ripped from a comic book or graphic novel. All back-lighting and heavily inked outlines, the live-action characters look like three-dimensional cartoons. Robert Rodriguez has developed into one of the masters of green-screen filmmaking, so much so that it’s only rarely that any disconnect between foreground and background action mars the illusion. Color is sapped from the high-contrast, black-and-white images, where the only color that registers on the screen is in the red flash of a police siren, a dame’s come-hither trappings, or the glint of a character’s eyes. And sometimes, instead of the heavily lined woodblock images, the whole screen suddenly slips into reverse images, so that the characters’ outlines become white silhouettes against the black void.
The black-and-white imagery is another indicator that we’ve been thrust into a film noir universe, where slivered light from venetian blinds casts shadows everywhere. In this world, men are tough and women are sluts – and always the twain shall meet in a preordained downward trajectory. It’s not a coincidence that one plot line begins to resemble the sexually fetishistic Gilda; another moment you’re reminded of Fred MacMurray’s poor sap in Double Indemnity; then you start thinking about the similarities between Rourke’s hard-boiled hulk Marv and Mickey Spillane’s brutish lug Mike Hammer.
It’s unrealistic to expect a period film noir to treat the sexes with the respect and equality they deserve. However, it’s not unreasonable to hope that a present-day throwback might address rather than ape film noir’s embedded sexist conventions, which are unpalatable to modern eyes and ears. Viewers might also find themselves in a bit of a narrative muddle, as various story strands function as prequels and sequels to the last Sin City film. With no continuous through line to get lost in, viewers are more apt to focus on the film’s fetishized objectifications – and those Sin City: A Dame to Kill For has in abundance, for better and for worse.