I think Sin City is the most violent movie I have ever seen. How on earth did it have an “MA” rating rather than an “R”? The violence wasn’t redundant – it was an important part of the kind of world the film was presenting – but that didn’t make it less shocking.
In some ways, the main male characters were reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. Marv, in particular, was very much descended from Moose Molloy (by way of The Maxx, with a bit of input from Wolverine), but all three of them had elements of the chivalric, protective approach towards women that is the foundation of Phillip Marlowe’s character. But they also had a sadistic side that just isn’t present in Chandler. Marv didn’t just kill people – he revelled in the slaughter and ultimately performed horrific acts of torture. And Hartigan gave way to a berserker fury when he killed the Yellow Bastard. Dwight didn’t do anything as extreme in the film, but he did casually mention that he was a murderer who had been given a new face.
Chandler said “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. … He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” In Sin City, the streets were mean, but the men were not untarnished. In a way, they were men of honour, and they might even have been the best men in their world, but they were certainly not good enough for any world. Not even Hartigan, and certainly not Dwight or Marv.
The men were definitely the centre of the film. The women were all decorative – and mostly incredibly lethal – but they were objectified. The men were doing what they did for, or because of, the women. A somewhat misogynistic world view – but, again, very Chandler.
The visuals in this film were just amazing. On the black and white film, the splashes of colour had a stunning impact. And the script and performances more than matched this. In the excerpts I’d seen on At the Movies, Clive Owen’s lines had seemed stilted and unrealistic, but somehow in the context of the film they worked. Nevertheless, Dwight was the least complex of the three main characters, or, at least, the one you gained least insight into. His part of the film was more plot-driven, which made it less interesting than the other sections – though probably also less disturbing. You got a much better idea of what was driving – and I do mean driving – Hartigan and Marv, so there was a much closer connection with their stories. Also, they both had creepier villains – amazing performances from Nick Stahl and especially Elijah Wood. The women had less to work with in terms of either character or menace, but insofar as it was possible, they all gave strong performances.
One of the reviews I read described it as “style over substance”. I don’t think this is fair. Certainly, without the visual style the film would have had far less impact, but this doesn’t mean that it was without substance, in the way that, say, Kill Bill was. In fact, it probably would have been an easier film to watch if this had been the case. Rather, the visuals combined with the writing to give a powerful and disturbing picture of a world in which everything is corrupt: in which men can have chivalric ideals yet at the same time perform – and revel in – quite horrific levels of violence. The world of Sin City was morally bankrupt. Unfortunately, I’m not totally convinced that the the film wasn’t as well.