Human Echoes Rundown: Sin City

Sometimes two people can look at the same thing and see two different things. For example let’s say you and I are both looking at a table. It’s obviously the same table, but maybe one of us sees it from a different angle, or in different light. Maybe you see it as a white and gold table, and I see a blue and black table. Maybe your parents were murdered by a table that looked exactly like that.

We’re looking at the same table, but we’re not seeing the same thing. Movies are like that too. We call it “subjectivity.” I means that each individual viewer brings his own set of variables to the experience that can color how he processes it. Maybe his political beliefs make him see something in a different light, maybe he’s seen another film with a similar premise, maybe he’s surrounded by friends who are all psyched to see this film.

But one of the most important of these factors is how seriously the viewer takes the film.

Cinema is a hybrid of art and entertainment, and while those two things don’t exist independently of each other, they represent two very different ways of approaching a film. If you’re looking for a popcorn-munching good time, Holy Motors might not be for you. If you’re looking to break down the themes and metaphors present in the film, you might want to steer clear of The Monster From Bikini Beach.


But the thing about Sin City is, you can look at it from both perspectives. And to get the whole picture, you kind of have to.

That weird black and white style with splashes of color thrown in for dramatic effect has to make it artsy, right? Those visuals broke new ground in the world of cinema, rewrote the rules for what was possible in a film. Stylistically, Sin City is a work of genius, both as a film in and of itself, and as a one to one adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel.

But if you take the film completely seriously as a work of art then you have to ask yourself what is has to say.

sin-city-2005-52-g-albaWhat kind of mind would ask us to root for “heroes” like these? Criminals. Psychopaths. Torturers.  What kind of man paints his women as prostitutes and sex objects, casts them as prizes to be won and victims to avenge? (The partial exception to this trend is section of the film adapted from The Big Fat Kill, in which a mystery man is pulled into a turf war between a band of mercenary prostitutes and a corrupt police force. The women here are still sex objects, but at least they have agency within the story.)

But then there’s the other view. There’s the side that says, “Hey, don’t take it so seriously, it’s just for fun man.” And from that perspective Sin City is practically flawless. “Fun” in the terms of cinematic experience is something that’s harder to perfect than most people think. It’s often characterized as the low rent, less important relative to quality, but the truth is “fun” has just as many moving parts as “art.” It it were easy to make a fist-pumping crowd pleasing romp movie studios would be cranking them out by the dozens.

005SCT_Devon_Aoki_003Sin City might be a problematic work of art, but on a visceral level it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Marv is a torture-happy psychopath, but that needn’t stop us from reveling in his unstoppable quest for vengeance. Hardigan might be a white-knight author-insert character, but there’s still fun to be had watching him shoot the testicles off the same pedophile twice.

As a statement about the way the world is or should be, Sin City is frankly abhorrent. But as a consequence-free romp through our lizard-brains’ dark fantasies it’s a work of pure genius.

If you don’t think about what the film is saying and how it stands as a work of art you’re missing a big part of the picture. But if you don’t consider the merits of its visceral thrills and fist-pumping action you’re missing just as much.

Albert lives in Florida where the humidity has driven him halfway to madness, and his children have finished the job. He is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.

To hear more of our thoughts on Sin City check out Episode 187 of the Human Echoes Podcast.


4 thoughts on “Human Echoes Rundown: Sin City

  1. I listened to this episode twice, essentially to confirm that what I was hearing was Al struggling with his inner conflict about a film that challenges the viewer to find a grey area within the stark contrasts of a world painted in black and white, and appropriately titled accordingly.

    I do love this film, and consider it something of a masterpiece in some ways, but I do not in any way consider it a fun “consequence-free romp”. There is room for grey area even in a critical assessment of this cartoonishly ultra-violent splatterfest of a film that allows for subjectivity about it somewhere in between.

    • Frank Miller’s view of heroes is…um…complicated.

      One of the things that struck me about the storytelling is: if these are the people we’re “cheering” for, exactly how bad is the rest of the city? Noir often explores the idea of the cynical paladin, the man dragged down because of his need to do the right thing, or because he clings to a code of behaviour when the rest of the world is happily corrupt. Here we have…I don’t know, the optimistic anti-paladin? Bad men doing what they hope is right, knowing there is no redemption available?

      There’s a long history of art – comics and movies especially – inadvertently making heroes out of people we ought not to be cheering for. Judge Dredd, for example, was conceived and written as satire, at least in part a satire of the Dirty Harry movies where a lone cop with a huge weapon dispenses instant “justice”, wild west style. Dredd was a complete fascist monster, and yet within a few months of his appearance, readers of 2000AD had pushed the satire to one side and decided that Dredd was a hero. The character has grown and changed since, but at the core he’s still Orwell’s boot, stamping on the face of humanity forever. We can include Walter White, Dexter, Hannibal Lecter, and most of the icons of horror, in that list. Why are we captivated by these people? They’re awful!

      But we are. It’s an uncomfortable point.

      Not nearly as uncomfortable as Miller’s portrayal of women, though.

      • I hear what you’re saying about us cheering for non-heroic characters, but I think there’s an important line in HOW they’re portrayed in the story. Walter White is interesting and compelling as a character, but the show never paints him as a hero. They give you just enough reason not to loath him completely, but he’s very clearly not someone the creators think of as a “good” guy. In Sin City I don’t get that sense of removal. These characters don’t seem to have much depth beyond being “cool.” There may be a conversation to be had about our psyche, and why we root for them, but the MOVIE isn’t interested in pushing that conversation forward. At least not in any sense that I saw.

    • Maybe you’re right. It’s a strange place to be, trying to reconcile something I found essentially repulsive and yet was also undeniably entertained by. I also won’t deny that part of this is me trying to reconcile my view of the movie with the views of others. Maybe that stems from some weakness of opinion, but I do frequently consider the possibility that what I think is wrong.

      I think “struggle” is exactly the right word to use when describing my process of forming an opinion about this movie. If I hadn’t come to it after hearing it endlessly praised for years I think I would have been much much harsher in my judgement. Maybe if I was being completely honest with myself I would have been.

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