Sin City (2005)

What excels in one medium does not always work as well in another. Narration might be perfect for a novel, but in a film, the viewer can often see or conjecture the same information. In the same way, episodic material works well in a lot of mediums, but doesn’t always excel in film. The visual style of the still image doesn’t always translate well to motions pictures. It’s these problems and more that prove to be the tragic vice of Sin City.

A series of three unrelated stories makes Sin City’s origin as a series of short graphic novels readily apparent. Films with episodic narratives can, from time to time, work, but they usually have to be unified, thematically or narrative, to work. Sin City lacks this sense of unification. Yes, it all happens in the fictional Basin City, and the stories do occasionally cross paths, but there are so many moments of this film that indulge in cinematic excess.

In a way, one could almost call excess the unifying element of the story. The over the top, black and white visual style, punctuated by heavy-handed doses of color to accentuate sex or violence. The violence is rarely clean, often happening on screen and to the relish of the characters involved in the violence. After all, this is sin city, the place where every vice and excess known to man is taken to the n-th factor.

But to call it an exploitation film is to miss out upon the heavy elements of film noir. The fem-fatale, the tragic hero, the linguistics and pacing of the voiceovers all hearken back to a lost genre of film. While noir certainly helps frame and guide the film along, it also is something the film can never completely unify with, in part due to the comic book nature of the film, involving bizarre, over the top and surreal characters and events that happen throughout the film. Noir is very much grounded in a fatalistic sense of reality, while Sin City is a kind of dark fantasy.

What doesn’t help is the uneven nature of the writing. Some of the inner monologues and exchanges give the film this sense of grimy texture that perfectly evokes a tone. However, a lot of the film is permeated with miscalculated jokes, awkward dialogue and poorly executed deliveries. Some of it’s in the ridiculous sense of machismo thought the film, while others are due to the absurd nature of the characters.

This could be due to the fact that the entire film is paying homage to old, trashy novels based on exploitation and shameless pandering to the audience. The problem is that the production values are so impressive and the manner in which the material is handled is so deathly serious that it lacks the self-awareness needed to pull off the effect.

For some, all this won’t matter. The look of the film is so slick, the black and white aesthetic and the readily apparent CGI, that it’s easy to simply get caught up in the aesthetics of the film. At times, it goes a bit too much in the comic book direction, creating shots that look too flat, but overall it’s a cool look for a film that hasn’t been overused yet. The usage of color is heavy-handed and sometimes jarring, but effective nonetheless.

Sin City is a messy film, to say the least. It never comes together and fails to quite figure out the proper tone but it remains entertaining enough. By the end, it’s still not clear whether this is exploitation cinema or a serious attempt at neo-noir. In that way, it’s reminiscent of The Spirit, even though that film at least knew not to take itself too seriously. Sin City could do well to not take everything with such stoic gravitas. Not every graphic novel adaptation can have the weight of Watchmen, and most that have tried have failed, a list to which Sin City can be added.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing