Sin City (2005)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller

Artistic Value: * * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * * *

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In the dark alleys and squalid tenements of Basin City, various tales unfold. A vicious detective, Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro), and his associates are murdered by a band of prostitutes led by the tough and sensuous Gail (Rosario Dawson), who then has her former lover, Dwight (Clive Owen), a wanted murderer, dispose of their corpses in order to prevent a gang war from breaking out. Marv (Mickey Rourke), a hideous ex-con framed for murdering a beautiful blonde prostitute, sets out to avenge that woman's death, which brings him into conflict with the Roarks, the city's most powerful family. Meanwhile, a cop, Hartigan (Bruce Willis), hunts down the son of the crooked Senator Roark, Roark, Jr. (Nick Stahl), a child molester who has abducted an eleven year old girl, only to be wrongly convicted of raping her himself. Then, having been released from prison after eight years, he finds Nancy (Jessica Alba), the girl he had previously saved, who has grown up to be a stripper, and fights to protect her from Roark, Jr., who has been transformed into a yellow, odoriferous monstrosity.

Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller's Sin City, which is based on the graphic novels written by the latter, is a wonderfully lurid, ferociously brutal, and visually mesmerizing film.

The directors have, in fact, created what is, almost certainly, the most accomplished transferral of material from graphic novels to the screen yet to have been made. Instead of merely lifting the characters and incidents from these works, while divorcing them from the visual qualities to which they had there been joined, as most directors have done, Rodriguez and Miller have crafted a movie that, throughout its duration, actually looks like its source. They have not, however, simply slavishly replicated the motifs and styles found in such books, but have used them to produce a genuinely astonishing work of art.

Filmed wholly in sharply contrasting black and white, though its stark images are often tinted with rich reds, dirty yellows, cold blues, or some other color, Sin City really is a wonder to look at. Even the costumes and sets are bewitching. The former transform the movie's characters into a menagerie of peculiar, otherworldly beings, whether these are scantily clad but deadly prostitutes, cruel, scarred cops, monstrous, brutish thugs, or grotesquely deformed, oleaginous child molesters, while the latter conjure up a strange universe adorned with impossible, birdcage-like prison cells, foul, dilapidated dives, modish antique cars, bubbling tar pits ringed with huge dinosaur sculptures, and other odd places besides these. Such sets and costumes draw the viewer out of the mundane world in which he lives and transport him to a dark, threatening, yet intoxicating fictional landscape. I cannot begin to express how fascinating the film is visually.

What is more, there is hardly a part of the movie, from its dialogue to its acting to its cinematography, that is not deliciously overwrought and melodramatic. Instead of trying to copy the actions of ordinary human beings, the directors make manifest a world of heightened intensity in which the moviegoer is so able to lose himself that he is completely caught up in the vicious, short lives of its various savage, often deranged heroes and its gratuitously nasty, sadistic villains. Then, captivated by their doings and infused with their emotions, the viewer is left drunk with this joyously weird experience.

Fortunately, the stories Rodriguez and Miller tell are all well crafted, so that these other elements are never wasted, as they would have been had they been joined to trite, contrived tales. All the directors' narratives are suffused with harsh, garish violence, inhabited by brutal, hateful individuals, and animated by an enthralling stylishness. While none of their characters emerge as complex individuals, they are all the richer for it. Instead of being reduced to subjects for some sort of spurious attempt at psychoanalysis, they emerge as powerful, affecting figures who imprint themselves upon the viewer with such force that he cannot but be fascinated and affected by them.

Although I am hesitant to describe Sin City as a masterpiece, the film's numerous virtues do make watching it an exhilarating, inebriating experience. It is certainly one of the best made and most engaging movies I have encountered for some time.

Review by Keith Allen

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