Frank Miller’s Sin City

As many of you know, Frank Miller’s incredible comic Sin City was recently released as a feature-length mainstream film. Alisa and I saw it on opening night, and my review is the same as most film critics’ reviews. I’ve been reading Sin City since about 1995 or so (when only the first three story arcs were published as graphic novels), and it was everything I wanted it to be and a little bit more at times. Aside from some stiffness in the beginning of the That Yellow Bastard sequence, it was pitch-perfect, making concessions for the medium of film in all the right ways and in very few spots. It’s so close that there are side-by-side comparisons on the web.

Hartigan and Nancy in the comic and the film

As a fervent fan of the comic, watching the film was very satisfying, as some of the most artful moments in the comic were faithfully recreated on screen. Obviously, I enjoy the comic and the movie, along with Miller’s work.

I feel no need to defend Sin City as a good movie or a good comic. But I ran across a review (of sorts) on Be A Design Group’s website, and it really bothered me. I’ll explain.

Marv gazing with Gladys in hand

Take, for example, these lines from Bennett’s impressions (though, you should just read the whole five-paragraph post:

Visually it was everything I had hoped for. What a beautiful movie….The design of this movie was horrible. This movie is all style and no content. You can not have one without the other….

…Design should clarify content, not mask it. This movie (and I assume the novel) candy coat a weak and disgusting story with beautiful visuals. I’m ashamed to say that when the credits rolled I kind of enjoyed watching it. After I realized the depravity that this movie endorsed, I knew why I had a sick feeling in my stomach when I left the theater….

At the risk of sounding dismissive, I think Bennett missed the point, or rather, inserted a point or two that weren’t there. Then, on that foundation of misinterpretation, layed on a thick coating of highly subjective moralizing under the guise of critique.

My primary issue with Bennett’s assessment is that he seems to look for a moral narrative, an “endorsed” lifestyle, as though movies are intended to act as compasses for personal behaviour. The movie endorses very little. In fact, I’d argue that it presents its characters as actors on a very stylized stage, living out their lives in a city that creates avenues of corruption and alleyways of degradation, fighting for what they believe, not what we should. (I mean, Marv’s a mental patient who downs medication bottles like shots of whiskey…then goes for the whiskey. C’mon.)

Marv with more than a few taped cuts

Basin City, the setting of the comics, is hyperbole. It’s fantasy (Miller describes Sin City as fantasy, in fact*). While Bennett may be repelled by the actions in the world Miller has created, it hardly means that the design “masks” the content. The content is there. The stories are hyper-noir grit. They don’t glorify violence, they demonize it. I’ve never understood people who shrug off Schwarzenegger films, which make violence bloodless and natural, but cry out in anguish when a film portrays violent brualilty as…violently brutal. Miller has the narrative integrity to create a harsh world and actually make it harsh. The style is stark and beautiful, savage and graceful. It’s art. It’s a move towards true black-on-white; a visual hyper-noir to match its narratives. It’s no crutch.

And, in response to this statement: “I challenge you to really evaluate this movie before you endorse it.” I accept that challenge. I have evaluated it. I did it over and over again when I read the comics. In fact, I read them over and over again (and I’m not in 8th grade, thank you). The first Sin City (comic) story arc, featuring Marv, Goldie, and Kevin, blew me away. I loved it. It established a noir grit with a bit of quirk and kink, then blew the doors off with a bizarre twist that comments heavily on power and politics. I found A Dame to Kill For and The Big Fat Kill less satisfying, then That Yellow Bastard brought me back, full on. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the most visually striking and strongest in terms of story. The first was a milestone in comics, but Yellow Bastard is my favorite.

My problem with Bennett’s attack on the “design” failings of the film is that his little moral scolding (Shame on all of you!) reads more like a case of high expectations and a bit of ignorance as to what he was getting into being shattered by the reality, which made him unsettled and unhappy. I guess he likes his violence bloodless and noble, not dark, gritty, and rough. Well where’s the sin in that?

As for the charges of sexism: Sin City is as sexist as hookers on the street. It is because it is. Nobody asked for gender-equality clearance before constructing the rough, dirty, ugly underside of humanity, and that’s what Miller’s Basin City emulates. Plus, Miller’s women are no pushover dames looking for a white knight. And, if Bennett had read the comics (he didn’t), he might’ve retracted his invectives to the contrary.

Bennett’s entitled to his opinion, but he shouldn’t go slinging around accusations and insults at the rest of us because he wanted to feel warm and fuzzy on the walk out of the theatre. Sin City is my kind of design.

Haritgan aims his hefty revolver

*In an NPR interview with Rodriguez an Miller, conducted by Kevin Smith.

2 replies on “Frank Miller’s Sin City

  1. I’m really, really tempted to post a comment on that guy’s blog to the effect of



    I am a bad person.

  2. Oh, just for the purposes of clarity: I actually really enjoy Be A Design Group’s site. It’s a solid design blog and I highly recommend it. It’s just this one thing that ticks me off.

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