Sin City is a 2005 neo-noir film directed by Robert Rodriguez in collaboration with the author of original series of comic books Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino. The directors created the atmosphere of seedy underworld and tell stories of men committing crimes for femme fatale characters using such traditional features of film noir genre as darkness, never-ending rain and the senses of purposelessness and despair. Sin City touches upon a variety of themes that include love, lust, money, crime, violence, gender inequality, murder and revenge among others. Sin City is an extravagant and outstanding film due to its interesting cinematic language and hyperbolic reflection of the darkest sides of the society and culture in which it was created.
Reflection of the Darkest Aspects of Society and Culture
The Basin City depicted in Sin City is a hyperbolized version of corrupted human society. In the dark, rainy and cold Basin City, the characters feel abandoned in outlandish violence, terror and corruption. The authors of the film create an impression that the city itself is a beast anticipating the moral fall of its citizens. An individual cannot survive in such world without committing a crime. There is no hope for equal treatment of ordinary and honest people. Only the rich can prosper in Basin City and live the way they want to. The corrupted police, the priests and government form a dangerous union that controls the city and its citizens. Money rules the real world, as well as the world presented in Sin City. There is no place for humanity and honesty in Basin City, and all attempts of the protagonists of the film to act kindly and nobly fail in the end.
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The characters of Sin City are unrealistic and even fantastical, however, they represent common people more than it may seem from the first sight. According to Philipp Schmerheim, “the film’s esthetics of unnaturalness suggests a kind of hyper-real space which is partially removed from the laws that govern the normal world” (122). In the world of Basin City, men are hyper-masculine, rude, cold-blooded and unkillable. It is a characteristic of a film noir genre that the plot of Sin City revolves around a flawed, cynical and disillusioned male character and a woman he protects or searches vengeance for. Violence is indeed a part of their everyday life (Schmerheim 122). Among the film’s characters are serial killers, bandits, flawed clergymen and police officers. In Sin City, there are such femme fatale characters as Nancy, Blondie, Gail, Becky, Miho, Lucille and Shellie leading male characters to crime intentionally or unintentionally. The women characters play the roles of waitresses, strippers and prostitutes, who resist the rules of male-dominant society in different ways. Exaggeration in depiction of men and women, however, can be explained by the fact that Sin City is a precise reproduction of a comic. In fact, it is a characteristic of comic genre to hyperbolize and to be unrealistic and fantastical.
Sin City reflects such important issue of modern society as gender inequality that is still an actual nowadays. Due to the fact that a film is based on a comic, Sin City is centered on male characters rather than on female ones. In general, comics as a genre are written by male writers and for male audience. Therefore, their ideology is based on male vision of reality and gender roles within society. Sin City’s stories are created by the minds of their male narrators and present women from an ultra-masculine point of view that is quite misogynistic. In fact, even though the men of Basin City admire the female characters, most of them demonstrate no respect for women by slapping and humiliating them. At the first sight, the women of Sin City appear to be strong-willed warriors and magnificent goddesses. However, if examined closer, they are morally fallen victims, prostitutes and strippers serving for men’s ego. While discussing Sin City, Gregory J. Watkins notes “the way in which women are dehumanized and viewed as objects rather than subjects, which has a detrimental effect on women’s humanity” (135). Thus, the film presents women as objects of a man’s desire rather than realistic individuals with their own ideals and needs.
At the same time, all female characters of the film demonstrate their position towards the issue of gender inequality by refusing to play the roles of submissive wives and caring mothers. In contrast, some of the characters use their sexual appeal to deceive, enslave and manipulate men in order to deal with control and gain power over them and social, as well as financial independence (Sprengler 107). Of course, to become powerful, most women of Basin City have to play the roles of prostitutes and criminals. However, there are the other female characters, who became empowered in a different way. For instance, Lucille, Marv’s parole officer, is a woman completely independent from men due to the fact that she works in police and is a lesbian; therefore, she is not supposed to serve to men. In fact, Sin City empowers its female characters to overcome the traditional gender roles prescribed by male-dominant society at the price of their dignity and innocence. At the same time, the film restores patriarchal order in the city by the end of the film by punishing female characters, such as Lucille, Goldie and Gail among others for transgression of social boundaries.
The scene entitled “The Big Fat Kill” is the one that most explicitly deals with the issue of misogyny and gender inequality. The scene begins with Dwight who decides to watch after Jackie Boy, the ex-boyfriend of his current girlfriend Shellie, in order to prevent him from doing any harm to other women. Jackie Boy is a dangerous misogynist, who abuses women and, thus, demonstrates his power. Rejected by Shellie, Jackie Boy goes to Old Town to find a prostitute and release his anger on her. There, Becky, one of the women of Old Town, rejects him and Jackie Boy tries to brutally force her to sit into his car, humiliating the woman.
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However, many women stand behind Becky ready to protect her if the stranger possesses danger to her. It may be argued that the female characters symbolize empowered femininity as they carry guns and control their territory.
However, if one pays more attention to details, he or she will see that the women’s power in the film has limitations. First and foremost, they are prostitutes, thus, they have to obey to men’s desires. Second, women of Old Town were permitted to gain some power by men. In fact, the film shows that the women are independent and empowered only until men allow them to. Thus, in Sin City, women are not equal to men. The women of Old Town protect themselves for some time and refuse to receive help from Dwight. But as soon as they face difficulties, such as accidental murder of a police officer that can start a war, they ask Dwight for help in order to protect their territory and themselves from corrupted police officers, who are going to enslave the prostitutes and make them work for Basin City’s mafia if they find Jackie Boy’s body. Thus, current scene demonstrates that it is impossible for a woman to become independent and powerful in the world led by men.
Sin City touches upon the theme of religion and the way it is corrupted in society. The film demonstrates how power of the church makes the priests and cardinals, who were supposed to live according to the moral code of Catholicism, turn to crime and misuse of their political and religious influence. In hyperbolized manner, Sin City depicts such moral decline through the characters of Cardinal Patrick Henry Roark and Kevin, a cannibalistic serial murderer under the clergyman’s patronage. In the scene, when Marv came to kill the Cardinal, he tells a story of his acquaintance with Kevin, who came to him for religious counsel. Roark says that Kevin told him about his passion for cannibalism and that he felt guilt for it in the voice of an angel. What is surprising is that the Cardinal did not judge him for his actions and did not call the police. On contrary, Roark used all his influence to hide the murders of the young man, let him live on the farm of his family and allowed him to kidnap and kill prostitutes from Old Town. However, the most cynical scene of the film is the one where Kevin sits and reads the Bible, while Nancy is tortured by the Yellow Bastard upstairs.
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Furthermore, the Cardinal began to share Kevin’s passion for cannibalism. In the end, Senator Roark, the brother of cardinal Roark, makes Marv responsible for the crimes of Kevin and Cardinal Roark. Such scenes demonstrate moral and religious decline of the clergymen and believers of Basin City. However, Sin City depicts the theme of religion from a positive point of view, as well. According to Watkins, Hartigan is the most Christ-like character of Sin City, who has a mission to save Nancy’s life at all prices and is punished for the crime he did not commit (135). In fact, the viewers feel surprised by Hardigan’s self-sacrificial love and sense of duty. Thus, the film shows that there are few people in society, who are still capable to sacrifice themselves for good of the others like Christ did.
Additionally, Sin City touches upon the themes of betrayal and corruption of police and government through the characters of Hartigan, Senator Roark and Marv among others. Hartigan, a police officer, tries to prevent Junior, the son of the Senator, from raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl named Nancy. Hartigan’s partner, Bob, tries to stop him. Hartigan shoots in Junior and saves Nancy, however, is shot by Bob, who betrayed him as he worked for the criminals. Junior's father is Senator Roark, who chooses a terrifying way for revenge using all his influence. Senator Roark pays for Hartigan's surgery in order to accuse him for Junior’s crimes and for assaulting him, as well. Senator Roark explains the reason why he can act with impunity to Hartigan. Roark says, “Power don't come from a badge or a gun. Power comes from lying. Lying big, and gettin' the whole damn world to play along with you.” As Senator knows the truth about the secrets of which the others lie, they are dependent on him and will support his actions no matter what. Marv also becomes the victim of Senator Roark because of his girlfriend, Goldie, who possessed a threat to the power of the Roarks over the city. First, he becomes falsely accused of murdering her and is later sent to the electric chair for the killings of Kevin and Cardinal Roark. Thus, Sin City reflects the corruption and lack of morality within society.
Analysis of Cinematic Language of Sin City
Sin City has a distinct structure. The film consists of four parts or stories: “The Customer Is Always Right,” “That Yellow Bastard,” “The Hard Goodbye” and “The Big Fat Kill.” The first two stories are divided into two parts, which appear at the end of film. All the stories are narrated (first-person narration) by their main male characters – Marv, the Salesman, Hartigan and Dwight, except the second part of “The Customer Is Always Right.” There is a number of flashbacks used, for instance, those of Marv and Hartigan.
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Sin City follows basic conventions of the noir film genre in terms of tone and style. The film serves as visualization of Miller’s dark imagination presented in the original comic series. Like the other noir films, Sin City is filmed in the low-key lightning scheme. The film perfectly reproduces a mysterious and dangerous atmosphere of dark shadows and silhouettes of film noir. However, Sin City beyond basic conventions of film noir by coloring certain objects, such as, for instance, the eyes of the victim of the Salesman, blonde hair and skin of Goldie on the red bed of heart shape, yellow skin and blood of Junior. By doing so, the directors emphasize certain stylistic and plot details and even make the scenes more impressing.
To understand the distinctness of cinematography, production design, performance and sound of Sin City, it is necessary to pay more attention to certain scenes. For instance, the opening scene of the film begins with a longshot of a lonely black-and-white woman in a bloody dress on the balcony at the heart of the city. Right before the appearance of the first image of the scene, the audience hears saxophone music mixed with the sounds of police sirens and rushing cars. The sounds of car engines suggest that the story is set in a busy city, and the police sirens point out a leitmotif of crime and violence. The woman in red is shown from high angled long shot that emphasizes her loneliness, alienation and vulnerability. At the same time, she stands above the city and looks down on it, and such fact suggests that she is an empowered female character. The shape and color of the dress only strengthen the impression of her as a femme fatale.
As the Salesman approaches the woman in red, her eyes are black-and-white like the rest of her body. When the Salesman offers the woman in red a cigarette, her eyes start burning with green, demonstrating her interest in the man and her try to charm him.
As soon as he starts talking to her, the Salesman reveals that she is a fatal woman tired from constant running from something and he promises to save her. The eye-level angle of framing suggests that the two are equal; however, the coloring of the shot suggests the opposite. At the same time, the fact that the man is higher and that he offered her a cigarette and lighted it suggests his domination as a man over her.
The scene later reveals the fact that the Salesman was hired by the woman in red to kill her. He hugs her and says that he will cash her check tomorrow. The two, the salesman and the corpse of the woman, are shown from the high angle. The man looks up in the sky, implying that he waits for judgement from a higher power. Josh Harnett, who played the Salesman, perfectly reproduces the sense of despair and guilt of his character.
Thus, the opening scene establishes the main themes of the whole film, such as crime, religion, greed, loneliness, alienation, gender and social inequality among others.
There is a number of outstanding shots that enrich the cinematic language of Sin City, for instance, the one that depicts Marv and Goldie lying in a heart-shaped bed. The shot demonstrates the difference between the characters and setting in terms of color. Marv is black-and-white, while the bed is bloody red, the hair of Blondie is honey blond and her skin is of natural neutral color. The setting, the room of Marv, on contrary, disappeared in the darkness. It creates an impression that there are only Marv and Goldie in the whole world. The fact that they are shown from a high angle and that the camera is zooming out supports an impression that there is nobody else in the world except them.
However, the next shot shows that their paradise is very fragile, and that it easily can be disturbed by opening the door. At the same time, the difference in size between the couple and the stranger’s shadow emphasizes Marv and Goldie’s vulnerability.
The use of color in illustration of Goldie serves for distinction again when Marv recognizes Wendy, her twin sister. When Marv sees her, he mistakenly takes her for Goldie by seeing her in color.
However, as she approaches him, he sees that it is Wendy, and she fades to black-and-white.
According to Philipp Schmerheim, such deference in colors, in which Marv sees Goldie and Wendy, implies that the black-and-white twin sister is not his love interest (122). Thus, the use of color in both shots also serves as a reflection of emotional perception of the characters of Sin City. Moreover, it is the way to make distinction between the ones with the same appearance.
There is also a shot that is cinematically rich in its demonstration of social inequality in Basin City. It involves Marv approaching the statue of Cardinal Roark.
The scene is shot in deep focus that suggests that both the statue and walking Marv are equally important for the audience’s analysis of good and evil. The use of low-angle framing only emphasizes the dominance in height of the statue over Marv. The shot demonstrates social inequality between an ordinary citizen of Basin City and the Cardinal with all his power and influence. With all his height and strengths, Marv is small in the face of Senator’s brother. The statue of Cardinal Roark also seems illuminated and such illumination stresses his “sanity.” It is especially cynical in the context of his criminal activity. Thus, cinematic language of Sin City is reached in various details that enrich the audience’s understanding of the stories and social issues presented on the screen.
Thus, Sin City is an outstanding film due to its interesting cinematic language and hyperbolic reflection of the darkest sides of the society and culture, in which it was created. Basin City depicted in the film is a hyperbolic version of the real world. Corruption, absence of morality, violence, murders, revenge and betrayal are the common aspects of everyday lives of the citizens on contrary to such feelings as love, self-sacrifice and friendship. In addition, Sin City deals with such actual issues as gender and social inequality, as well as corruption of religious, governmental and law enforcing institutions. The creators of the film are precise to various aspects of cinematic language, such as lightning, camera angles and sound and production design among others. It can be stated that Sin City is a masterpiece of neo-noir in terms of its form and content.