Frank Miller’s 2005 movie “Sin City” is a work of sadism, paedophilia, misogyny, hatred and fear. Note that I did not say “about,” although it is also about all of those things.
Sin City at IMDB
First a brief relevant character summary. I’ll identify people by their real names, not their character names, for simplicity.
Josh Hartnett plays an assassin. Mickey Rourke plays a random muscular thug. Bruce Willis plays an aging cop. Jessica Alba plays an erotic dancer. Clive Owen plays a random boyfriend.
“Random” used here in the sense that no one’s past life, career, etc. has any apparent bearing on what they do in the movie.
I will begin with sadism. The entire movie, even to the extent that it permeates the other topics listed at the beginning, is an expression of enjoyed violence. Not in the sense of violence as an accurate portrayal of the world, or a necessary means to an end, or any of that. Rather, the violence is the end in itself, and it is meant to be thoroughly enjoyed by both the characters and the audience. All aspects of plot are shaved down to get at the violence, to the extent that the film mostly consists of sequences where violence is actually occurring, sequences where a character is sneaking about in anticipation of violence, or the occasional situations where characters are merely discussing violence. The violence is not senseless or purposefulness; it is reveled in. Characters and scenes are crafted to make the violence more enjoyable.
What stands out here is not the fact that violence occurs and that it is supposed to be exciting, but that is perpetrated by the central characters and presented in a morally positive light. In contrast to those who reason through things, talk things over, and see nuances and shades of gray in the world, the true heroes are those who are willing to be incredibly violent on the spur of the moment and really “get things done” in an enjoyable way. To provide motivation for these good guys--to “prove” that the violence they do makes them good--the bad guys commit violence, in a bloody spiral leading up to the eventual climactic showing of superior violence on the part of the good guy.
Bruce Willis’ clips are less instructive in this regard from a quantity standpoint, but more so in a sexual way. Involved in chasing down a child molester, Bruce Willis bashes a couple lookouts over the head, then approaches the child molester himself. In the presence of the 9-year-old girl he has just saved, he luxuriantly has a standoff with the child molester, then shoots the man in the ear, the hand, and at last the genitals, drawing out the imposition of power in a lengthy foreplay.
The attention to genitals and a sexual overtone to the scenes is present throughout. In a later encounter with the same child molester he previously shot in the genitals, Bruce Willis finds that the man has undergone extensive scientific treatment in order to grow his genitals back so that he can sire an heir for his children. What does Bruce do? Well, he reaches down under the man’s pants and manually tears off his testicles at the most exciting point in their combat, then straddles him and beats him furiously until, weak with effort, he has at last finished.
Mickey Rourke’s character, a big, burly “bear,” handcuffs Elijah Wood’s character, a slim, neat boy with a tidy “bowl” style haircut and round glasses, to himself at the beginning of their passion together. Then, he holds Elijah Wood down and proceeds to tie off his veins so that he can saw off his limbs one by one, keeping Wood alive during the torture. And then, the climax: Mickey Rourke leans back, smoking a post-coital cigarette and staring at Wood’s mutilated body, as he calls a dog over to feed on the ends of Wood’s severed remains.
The violence done by the good guys and bad guys is very much the same in these stories. Elijah Wood’s character cuts off women’s limbs, eats their flesh and then mounts their heads on the wall. To punish him, Mickey Rourke cuts off Wood’s limbs, entices a dog to feed on his flesh, and then carries his head off as a trophy to show to another character (with whom he then similarly engages in violent pseudo-coitus).
Paedophilia next. Bruce Willis shoots off the man’s genitals to save a nine-year-old girl from him. As Willis takes out the guy’s flunkies, he dictates a monologue to the camera about how much of a sicko the guy is, and how much Willis has to rescue the girl he has kidnapped. Over and over again, Willis reminds the viewer that she is nine years old. In this scene, her age is no simple factoid, and it is not enough that the moviegoer just remember it. Rather, it is repeated ad infinitum, like lewd descriptions in an erotic story: age as emphasis, age as arousal. Once Willis has shot off the evil man’s genitals and completed the designated “fight scene,” the (nine-year-old!) girl visits him in the hospital, confessing with tremulous eyes that she “loves him,” will always love him, and giving him a slow kiss on the cheek.
For reasons vaguely related to the plot, Willis ends up in jail for the crime of--you guessed it--kidnapping and sexually molesting a nine year old girl. Although he is, according to the movie, innocent. He is abandoned by his wife and all the rest of society, but the girl (nine years old!) writes him letters for eight years of prison. We are reminded repeatedly that it is eight long years. When Willis gets out, he goes to find the girl (who was nine years old!). She is an exotic dancer. He repeats to himself ad infinitum this time that she is “nineteen.” “This nineteen year old girl,” etc. until you’re sick of the reminder.
Now, how “nine” and “eight” add up to “nineteen,” I fail to see. Perhaps my math is bad; perhaps the movie was just directed confusingly. Or perhaps they’re purposefully trying to avoid stigmatization by the veiled hint that she is only seventeen. Regardless, they run off together on another adventure. She still loves him; she comes onto him, and he holds monologues in his head where he tries to restrain himself from going after a “nineteen year old dancer.” He reminds her--and the audience--that he is old enough to be her grandfather. And that she’s nineteen. Don’t forget that!
Nineteen (or seventeen, as the case may be) is not wandering into paedophile territory. The point, however, of harping on the age--and of Willis and the girl, played in her later years by Jessica Alba, is to arouse through association with the nine-year-old character portrayed in the first Willis sketch. That is why it was so important for the writer to hammer it home to such a degree in both of the skits involving that character. Bruce Willis runs a constant monologue with himself whereby he is worthless and vile for being tempted by this beautiful, fetching nine-year-old, nineteen-year-old, seventeen-year-old, it-doesn’t-really-matter-she’s-young sexual being that he wants badly. His wife and life drop out of the picture, and ultimately, he shoots himself with the gun to “save” Jessica Alba’s character from retaliation from the father of the guy whose testicles he has mauled twice. For his last monologue, he reminds the viewer that he, an old man, is dying so that a young, beautiful girl can live. Touching and honorable in and of itself, but nonetheless indicative.
The creator of these stories has a low sense of self-worth. Lacking a sense of confidence or worthwhileness, his expressions of how to get things done are violent because with direct violence, “the proof is in the pudding.” By engaging in violence so freely and with such affinity, you can demonstrate power, which you secretly fear you are lacking. As with the schoolyard bully, the expression of violence is necessary to shield yourself from an exterior world you fear because of the emptiness and lack of worth you perceive inside yourself.
Because of this sense of unworthiness, the creator of these stories is unable to conceive of sex in a way separate from violence. Sexual arousal is a constant part of life, but the creator of these stories is unable to acknowledge his own sexual arousal except when partaking in an activity (violence) that shields him from his own private demons. Thus, the characters have sex while they have violence. Josh Hartnett kisses, loves, and murders the woman in the red dress on the balcony. Mickey Rourke and Elijah Wood get handcuffed together while one gets off on maiming the other.
Bruce Willis constantly tells himself how unworthy he is of Jessica Alba because of his age, his status of being a dumb cop while she is an attractive dancer, and oh, did I mention his age as compared to hers? He can’t get enough of how “unworthy” he is, but she wants him anyway. This is the monologue that the creator of Sin City has with himself: unworthiness, coupled with the secret fantasy that the attractive and worthy will like him anyway. (Those who have read Brave New World may recall the same fantasy recalled there, of being an unlikeable, unattractive little toad-man who schemes and hates, and who has fantasies of being “patted” by the attractive female lead in the book.)
At the beginning of his segment, Mickey Rourke is favored with the company of the prostitute Goldie. He did not buy her; his monstrism of face is so bad that, according to him on camera, “he can’t even buy a girl.” He figures out later that Goldie only pretended to want him for protection, because he was big. He decides that she picked him up in that bar because she was scared, and looking for the “biggest, ugliest guy” she could find. Then, she dies in his bed, but he didn’t do it, so the movie says. Mickey Rourke’s entire mission to kill and maim is driven by desire to avenge Goldie “because she was nice to me.” The viewer is regularly reminded how Mickey Rourke is unwanted and unlikeable because of his condition (facial misshape), as in the Bruce Willis segment (age). But don’t worry: he will manifest violence to make up for her having sex with him that one night, and that will balance out the equation of his unworthiness and avenge her.
Misogony, ah, misogony. Here I will be laughed at, because Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke both repeatedly condemn the mistreatment of women, and fight to avenge them.
The classic pattern of Sin City is that the heroes condemn the villians for something, then do it themselves. Bruce Willis condemns the child molestor for wanting the nine-year-old (she’s nine years old!) girl, then wants her himself. Mickey Rourke condemns Elijah Wood for his vile tortures, then tortures Wood himself. And the centerpiece characters in the story vocally and loudly condemn the abuse of women, then abuse women themselves.
Mickey Rourke, on his crusade to avenge Goldie (it was wrong to kill a woman) is helped out by Goldie’s sister. Rourke tells the camera that it really gets him angry when someone hits a woman. A few scenes later, Goldie’s sister is coming forward, asking to be allowed to kill Elijah Wood’s character for the killing Wood perpetrated against Goldie. But Rourke can’t have that; oh no, Wood has been captured for the purpose of Rourke’s torture. So Rourke punches Goldie’s sister and knocks her out, then tells her that it is for her own good, after which he goes on to get off on torturing Wood.
Clive Owen begins his own shot by saving his girlfriend from her abusive ex. He expresses his own violence by plunging the abusive ex-boyfriend’s head into the toilet, where we are treated to Frank Miller’s own coveted shivambu scene of the boyfriend throwing up urine. After Clive Owen has nobly protected his girl, he realizes that the abusive ex-boyfriend and his similarly abusive friends will be heading to oldtown, where they might hurt the prostitutes living there. So, he goes to protect them. Once there, he gets into an argument with a prostitute, and when she won’t see reason, he slaps her and knocks her down. Standing firm until she gets back to her feet, he wins her onscreen kiss and undying love because he showed how tough he was.
Saying misogyny, of course, is not to say that the creator has any better view of men in general, or even of himself. It’s just one particular lens through which he fears the world. The fear of women is even more than the fear of men, though. That is why the exotic, revealingly-dressed prostitutes of old-town parade around with heavy weaponry: women are at once desirable sex objects, yet capable of causing great damage. And nowhere within there do they have an actual character, any more than does the fat, female judge who ignorantly sentences Mickey Rourke to the chair. The real thing the creator of Sin City fears from women is that they may reject him. His own lack of self-worth and confidence makes him view women as terrible valkyries that you must hit, abuse, and then kill for in order to have any right to temporarily restrain yourself from ravishing them.
Sin City is quite the mental petri dish for its creator. The heroes and villians alike are all essentially facets of the creator’s character, conscious and subconscious. The creator’s own uncertainty about himself, his body and his sexuality, is what causes the split into hero/villian. Am I good? Am I evil? Am I interested in nine-year-old girls? Am I right to want to torture people--is it righteous justice?--or am I wrong, and is it a disgusting perversion that makes me worthy of torture and death? Perhaps this is why so many of the scenes end in the death of the main character. The longest vignettes--Bruce Willis’ and Mickey Rourke’s--and with Bruce Willis shooting himself in the head, and with Mickey Rourke getting electrocuted. Both happily and deservedly, because they accomplished their violent, tortuous objective of getting even with those who harmed women.
Wonderful art. Interesting violence. The rare hint of social commentary by titling a character “rich” or “godly” or a “Senator.” An intriguing play of smokes and mirrors that give an insight into a very sad, very fearful mind. (And, a ghastly look at the way so many other fearful minds lacking in confidence find that sort of entertainment fulfilling, novel, and worthwhile.)
In the background of every scene, I can almost see Frank Miller curled up in the fetal position in the corner of a dank, dripping dungeon, shot in black and white footage. He can see angels and demons flying around, at once hurting him and protecting him, but they change their masks every second. How he would like to figure out which is which. How he wants to ask a beautiful woman, a seductive child, a handsome and powerful man, to help him, but he is so afraid that they wouldn’t love him back that he can’t quite close his hand around anything but a pencil. Scrawl the pictures, shred the pictures. Swallow the tears away.