Her red lipstick gleamed like rubies against the ink-black night. “Make sure to include images of Rosario Dawson and Carla Gugino,” she purred. “You can even make a caption that I requested that.” Here’s Maggie McMuffin with a ten-years-later look at Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City.
Okay so despite being a comic books fan, I’ve never read much Frank Miller. I don’t think I’ve read anything he’s written that didn’t have Batman in it. I just wasn’t interested. And even the Batman stuff? Meh. Year One is not my thing, despite being an important piece of Bat-literature. Dark Knight Returns I liked more but not enough to read multiple times. Like that first time was a rollercoaster and after that it just became sort of funny? The Adventure of All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder is brilliant. But not on purpose. I hated it until I started viewing it as bad fanfiction and then it became so balls-out crazy it was hilarious. It is the book that gave us ‘I’m the goddamned Batman’ after all. Also Bruce just steals tiny, traumatized Dick Grayson from the circus and then leaves him alone in the deepest parts of the Batcave to see if he can survive. IT’S GREAT.
That’s it. Beyond some of his contributions to Batman, I had no interest in Frank Miller. I’m a comics fan from the 2000s on so my generation knows him as ‘that guy who wrote some important stuff and then got REALLY RACIST AND CONSERVATIVE AND GROSS. Like, all of his clout comes from books that came out so long before I could even say the word “book.” He’s sort of a sad joke now. At least Alan Moore became a warlock. Frank Miller is just that dude who wrote Holy Terror.
And I wasn’t reading comics at all when Sin City came out ten years ago so I had no real reason to jump into the source material. I watched the film in my friend’s garage bedroom because he said it was really cool. And it was. I remember commenting that the opening sequence is the only thing I’ve seen Josh Hartnett do that made him seem worthwhile. I remember thinking Rosario Dawson was a babe. I remember seeing a Gilmore Girl and noting that she couldn’t act so much as she could stare endlessly with her blue eyes. Oh and the visuals. Visually, Sin City stuck with me. It stuck with everyone didn’t it? I mean, after it came out I remember people talking about it but did anyone do anything with it? Did we get copycat films? I know we sure as hell didn’t get the sequel within the window of relevance. Did anyone watch that sequel? With Lady Gaga? Can she act?
No really. She’s gonna be taking over for Jessica Lange on American Horror Story this season. I need to know if she can act.
But that’s it. I didn’t latch onto it. And even after I became a comic book nerd I didn’t read the books. I just didn’t really care enough about the noir thing to seek it out. Also, I’m just wary of comic books that prominently feature sex workers, especially when written by people like Frank Miller, because I don’t like watching sex workers get fridged.
But in looking back and having read reviews by other sex workers, the girls of Old Town aren’t so bad as far as representation goes. So really now my biggest issue with rewatching the movie is going to be getting sad over Brittany Murphy.
Really I don’t know why I volunteered for this movie. I don’t have any real connection to it other than it was something that looked cool that I watched in high school.
But I have time to kill. So I guess I can interrupt marathoning Steven Universe to watch it.
Okay I watched the movie and we’re gonna talk about representation of women in films. This movie is not bad at it. It’s not. The women in this film are all fierce, capable, and strong, and for the most part they are loyal. There is hardly a woman in this film who falls on the side of antagonist or who is against other women. There’s very little girl hate in this film and a lot of female solidarity. Which is great and not the sort of thing you expect to see in a comic book movie.
But the stories aren’t about them. In fact, every single story (save for the thin bookends about Josh Hartnett’s hit man) are about men rescuing these women.
The first story, which is also the last story as it’s split into two parts, is about Bruce Willis’ cop character taking his last day on the job to go and stop a serial child rapist/murderer from killing Nancy Callahan. He succeeds, blowing off the guy’s ear, hand, and junk in the process. But because this asshole has a powerful senator father he goes all Draco Malfoy and sics his parents on Bruce Willis. We’re led to believe he gets shot to death but in the second half we learn he was thrown in jail for not playing along and confessing to the crimes himself. He eventually does because he thinks the now 19-year-old Nancy is being hurt and confesses to be let out to go find her. She’s totally a stripper now, which we actually learned earlier in another story. And she’s good and popular. Bruce Willis is a bit surprised by this “expecting a skinny little bookworm, too shy for her own good” but doesn’t make a thing of it. Then he realizes that it’s a trap! It was a trick and now the now super yellow pedophile knows where Nancy is and wants revenge. He drugs Nancy, beats the shit out of her, and taunts Bruce Willis, who eventually kills him this time. Also literally rips the guys new, scientifically grown junk off with his bare hands. Nancy, we are told, “grew up strong” and doesn’t scream once during her torture session. However, this strength is to make Bruce Willis proud because she sort of imprinted on him and is in love with him.
Bruce Willis ends up giving her a lovely speech about how he’s gonna be a big hero before killing himself to protect her.
The second story features Mickey Rourke made up to look like a comic character. It’s not bad, actually. The prosthetics in this film used to make people look like the more unrealistic characters pays off and fits into the aesthetic of the film. This is a film that looks purposefully unreal. Some segments do more work with it than others but overall it’s full of interesting choices and I was glad it extended to characters like Marv.
Marv spends the night with a gorgeous woman he has no business being with, only to wake up and find her dead in the bed beside him. Framed for her murder, he goes on a manhunt for whoever was responsible, citing that his reason for avenging her was that “she was nice to me.”
On the way, Marv meets Goldie’s sister Wendy and their fellow sex workers over in Old Town. Apparently Goldie learned that the most powerful man in the city, a high-ranking Catholic dude named Rourke (related to the rich senator and his pedophile son), was joining a creepy dude named Kevin in killing sex workers and eating them. Goldie had to go.
While I like Marv’s motivations and his relationships with women and actually liked this story best, it was also the one that stuck out to me the most as being about the man. Wendy and the other women in Old Town are super capable of taking care of themselves. Wendy watched her sister get killed. She’s willing to die on her revenge mission. But instead we follow Marv and see him knock Wendy out so that he can torture and kill Kevin rather than letting Wendy do him in with a bullet to the brain. Marv is a violent, dangerous man who happens to have a soft spot for women and also a no-hurting-them code, but knocking out a vengeful sister doesn’t qualify, I guess.
Wendy eventually visits Marv in jail (he is also framed for the murders and cannibalism, only confessing once they threaten his mother) and spends the night before his execution with him, letting him call her Goldie since he’s confused and really loved that woman for that one night. While it’s sort of dumb and I want to be cynical about it, it’s actually played off really sweet and non-sexualized. While Marv and Goldie’s night together came complete with amble tit shots and a heart shaped bed, Wendy and Marv are simply shown curled up together on his jail cell cot, Wendy still wearing not only her clothes but also her trench coat.
With the third story, we have Clive Owen not only trying to play white knight but causing more trouble because of it. At first he’s hanging with Brittany Murphy (a waitress named Shellie) at her place. Shellie is on one side of the door trying to get her asshole ‘boyfriend’ to go away. He’s violent, he hits her, he cheats on his wife, he drinks too much. Shellie is having none of it and tells Clive Owen to shut up and let her handle it. But eventually she does have to let Jackie Boy (a really terrifying Benicio Del Toro) in. She gets hit by him but takes it, threatens his friends, and is generally not a doormat. But Clive Owen threatens him in the bathroom and then, after getting him to leave, decides he should chase down these drunken assholes to stop them from killing someone. Shellie yells at him, but he doesn’t listen because the man knows best, sweetheart.
There’s a car chase and they end up in Old Town. Wendy’s not in this story and is never mentioned again, but we do meet the women she was with. Gail (super foxy Rosario Dawson who I cannot wait to see kick ass in Daredevil) is in charge and she’s already got an eye on the car. Her and her girls are setting a trap. and if Jackie Boy springs it, they’ll kill him and his crew. Which is exactly what happens after they harass and threaten one of the Old Town girls (Becky, played by Gilmore Girl).
Unfortunately, despite being a drunken abuser, Jackie Boy is a “goddamn hero cop,” and they have to get rid of the bodies before the truce between the cops and Old Town is broken. But there’s a spy and the mob find out and Gail gets kidnapped and there are more car chases and a fight in the sewers and the tar pits and eventually Clive Owen nearly dies but then gets saved and rescues Gail and then saves everyone by trapping the mob in an alley and just raining bullets on them! And while the sex workers are the ones who do most of the shooting, Clive Owen is the one who is the brains. But he’s also sad because Gail, the woman he is truly in love with, will never really be his because reasons that are never explained.
The only story in this film that isn’t about a dude saving women is about a dude killing them. The opening of the film, which is paced well and also sets up the striking visuals. (There’s a shot of a woman’s green eyes being illuminated by a lighter flame and the green fades away after the fire is gone. It’s lovely.) Josh Hartnett, actually being interesting as an actor, finds a lone woman on a balcony and offers her a cigarette. He narrates about not knowing what she’s running from and then kills her and talks about cashing a check. At the end of the film, we see Becky, who was the Old Town spy, leaving the hospital after being shot and meeting him in an elevator. He offers her a cigarette, she ends her phone call, and our last shot is her making a facial expression that lets us know she knows she’s gonna die.
A note about the narration. The men do that A LOT. Constantly. Hartigan narrates about what he thinks they are doing to Nancy to get to him. Marv narrates about what could have been haunting Goldie to make her seek protection by hooking up with him (the scariest dude she could find). Clive Owen narrates about what the cops and the mob are gonna do to Old Town if Jackie Boy’s murder is discovered. The men in this film are constantly talking about all the bad things that could happen to the women but also how strong the women are and it gets to a point where you wonder why we don’t just have a movie about the women of Sin City. Why not a story about Wendy rampaging through the town, beating up men and getting information and then killing a priest in his bed? Why not the story of how Gail and her army of kickass sex workers clawed their way to ownership of Old Town? Why not Nancy getting to kill that yellow dude and saving Hartigan?
Look, this movie doesn’t damsel people. Even the women in distress are tough and get through it and endure. There’s even a few mentions of women being able to process trauma better than men. When Marv’s parole officer Lucille is kidnapped by cannibal Kevin and has to watch him eat her hand, she screams and yells about it to Marv and immediately says she needs a cigarette. “Dames,” Marv narrates. “Sometimes all they gotta do is let it out and a few buckets later you’d never know”.
This is a movie that goes on and on about how strong women are but undermines that by constantly having the men do the real saving. That isn’t progressive. It’s hardly a baby step. In some ways it’s worse because you’re saying that no matter how awesome a woman is, she’ll always need a man to do the cleaning up.
But that’s not what the movie is about. It’s actually a really cynical film about power structures fucking people over and needing to turn bad to survive. Even Bruce Willis’ Hartigan, who is a good cop trying to take down crooked politicians who let relatives run amok, mercilessly kills people with his bare hands. This is a film about semi good to bad people doing bad things to worse people. There’s no worries about morality. The ethics of this world are kill or be killed, be hard, and also do tons of illegal things. Which in a way, makes them okay. The only person we see expressing real shame at this lifestyle choices is Becky, who turns against Old Town because the mob has offered her ‘something you never could, a way out’. Even though the mob has threatened her mother, she would rather take a chance the mob will actually treat her fairly than have told Gail what was going on and gotten protection for her because she doesn’t want her mom knowing she’s a sex worker. Being outed for that is worse than ruining the lives of all the women she’s worked with, despite the fact that the Old Town workers seem incredibly close and content with how things are run there. I’m not saying people like Becky shouldn’t be allowed to quit sex work if it’s not what they want to be doing, I’m just saying don’t sell people out to the mob and potentially get all of them killed.
I could also go on and on about how the sex workers in this film are actually pretty good representations. They’re caricatures and stock characters, sure. They don’t wear clothes, sure. Miho is a cool character who follow some racist tropes, definitely. But they take no shit, have their own turf, and are super loyal to and willing to kill for each other. They aren’t presented as any worse than the violent men of the movie for what they do, in fact they’re actually given a noble reason for their killing. I want a movie about them. Was the sequel more about them? If it was, please tell me so I can go watch it.
Also, aside from Becky, there’s nothing wrong with being a sex worker in this universe. Hartigan is surprised Nancy became a stripper but he’s not upset or disgusted by it. Marv didn’t know Goldie was a sex worker when he met her but he attests that it wouldn’t have changed how he felt and he gets really upset when other men in the film reduce her to words like ‘slut’ and ‘whore.’ Because Goldie was nice to him and that’s all that matters. He even says that with his face, with the violence written all over it, he “couldn’t even buy a woman” and he knows Goldie was just trying to use him for safety but damn, it sure felt nice to have someone by nice to him like she was.
Which, honestly, is a really common thing among sex worker clients. Mostly a lot of men just want to be told they’re okay, they’re desirable, and that being with them isn’t some giant chore. They just want reassurance. You give that to them, and they love you for it. They’re grateful. It’s the opposite of entitlement to women’s bodies and, while Marv does take it a bit far, it’s also kind of endearing. Also, it’s true to his character because his character is difficult to love and difficult to be around and there isn’t full redemption. His feelings for Goldie and his teaming up with her sister are touching but they aren’t enough to magically change him and I appreciate that even if Marv is the most violent Captain Save-A-Ho ever. I’m conflicted about it.
I’m not conflicted about Kevin mounting the heads of sex workers on the wall and his keeper using the ‘no one would miss them’ excuse. That’s some bullshit and it’s way too rooted in reality to be forgiven. That shit literally happens and has literally been said. It’s not stylistic violence like the blood splurts or someone being comically run through with a harpoon. It’s real and it’s bad.
Stylistically, of course, the film is great. The splashes of color are well chosen and so are the uses of lighting and silhouettes. Clive Owen’s whiteout silhouette falling through the darkness of the tar pit as he drowns is stunning, as are the shots of Hartigan leaving prison as it rains. But the performances are also standout. Jesica Alba plays Nancy as someone who is traumatized but still sweet, someone who really is the shy girl Hartigan was expecting (when she’s not on stage). Elijah Wood as the ever-smiling, never-speaking Kevin is unbelievably unsettling. Benicio Del Toro as Jackie Boy is also terrifying, downplaying his temper into a quiet storm that says ‘don’t fuck with me.’ Rosario Dawson as Gail is pretty much Catwoman in Year One but I don’t care because Rosario Dawson is perfect and babely and I honestly believe she would kill a man and then go clean the knife in her kitchen sink.
Sin City is an enjoyable little romp through violence and over-the-top dialogue but it’s not my favorite thing ever. It’s just way better than I could have hoped it could be. That said, my expectations were low to begin with and comic book movies and Frank Miller could still stand to make way for stories that give a louder voice to the female characters.
Random Notes (A Best-Of Collection)
— Nope. I was right. Best thing Hartnett ever did.
— Why is Marley Shelton not in more things?
— Okay so he killed her and is sweet but he doesn’t know what she was running from. Maybe the guys who hired him to kill her? Just a guess.
— The people they cast actually do look a fair amount like the art for the most part. But prettier because this art, for the most part, does not make women look like they have pretty faces.
— The fuck did Tarantino special-direct?
[Editor’s Note: He directed the scene with Clive and Benicio driving. Tarantino is obsessed with shooting on film and was curious about Rodriguez’s insistence on going full digital, but later came around when he realized he could just shoot the two of them in front of a green screen, sitting on boxes, with no set, and have it still be a scene.]
— Bruce Willis has a heart condition, must retire early. 30 years of cop. Getting ready to celebrate. BUT HE HAS ONE LOOSE END. HE’S GOTTA TIE IT UP. HE’S 60 THOUGH. NEARLY 60.
— The fuckl! Is that Matthew Lillard playing twins? MY LIFE — Bruce Willis is having so much trouble and says fuck off to stealth.
— Partner shoots him. Not fatally. But a lot. And near fatally. Willis stalls until backup comes so Nancy can’t get killed. They imprint on each other.
— “An old man dies. A little girl lives. Fair trade.”
— Mickey Rourke’s faaaaaace
— Naked women. Tits and ass everywhere. Mickey Rourke spends a night with Goldie and it’s perfect and he loves her and he wakes up and she’s dead. He’s framed.
— He runs to Lucille. “She’s a dyke. God knows why. With that body of hers she could have any man she wants.” Well clearly she doesn’t want men, bro. That’s what ‘dyke’ means. She’s probably super happy with her psychiatrist girlfriend.
— She gives him pills. He explains stuff. He’s all excited about the prospect of ‘war.’ She’s like ‘dude, prison.’
— “Walk down the right back alley in Sin City and you can find anything.”
— “Dames. Sometimes all they gotta do is let it out and a few buckets later you’d never know.” Because now Lucille is fine.
— “The hell I’ve sent him to must seem like heaven after what I’ve done to him.”
— Shellie’s place. Her abusive dude wants in and she says no. “The kind of total jerk loser who has to beat up on a girl to make himself feel like a man.” — She’s also got Clive Owen in there. He’s like ‘I can take care of it.’
— Shellie says she’s fucking black dudes and Benicio is like ‘I’m not racist’ but seriously he’s pissed.
— There is so much vocal fry in this movie.
— “The ladies are the law here.” Apparently the ladies in Old Town will just kill people.
— Oh they have ‘fag joints’ in Old Town. How progressive.
— “Us girls are safe as we can be, Lancelot.” Yeah! Fuck your savior complex!
— Good vocal work with the throat slit.
— I don’t think you can cough up tar like you do water.
— Car phones!
— This dude who got shot through with the harpoon is hilarious.
— Yellow dude. Smells bad.
— Then a bloody letter with a finger.
— “Let me throw some clothes on.” She’s…uh…actually pretty clothed.
— Alba does play her like a bookworm though. She’s upfront about her feelings but her posture is a bit reserved when she’s not on stage.
— Yellow dude is not okay.
— He hates his dad for putting him through stuff trying to grow back his dick.
— The well-spoken thug is sort of funny. ”I can only express puzzlement that borders on alarm.”