After a weekend of reading psychoanalytic theory as research for a paper I’m writing, I happened into Sin City, which could be subtitled “Freud’s Disciples.” Here are just a few examples of Freud's influence in the world created in the movie: count the number of male organs cut off, shot off, or ripped off during this film—castration anxiety. Or, consider how many young women hook up with older (usually protective) men (most notably the 11-year-old who grows up to be Jessica Alba, who wants to sleep with her “father” Bruce Willis)—Oedipal complex.
Here's another idea of a subtitle: “Sin City: A World without a Superego.”
Told in three parts, Sin City’s various plot lines overlap with repeated dialogue; impossible to kill heroes withstanding brutal punishment as they avenge a woman; and gruesome, cartoonish, shockingly comedic violence. Let’s pause for a moment to consider the violence.
Benicio Del Toro’s cop character Jackie Boy makes the mistake of pissing off some hookers, so he is promptly dispatched. Yet his dead corpse, with a gun hammered into his head, continues to speak and mock Clive Owen’s Dwight (ah, yes, again with the Freud—all three of the male “heroes” suffer from psychological turmoil, dreams, hallucinations, and insecurity). So a dead Jackie Boy talking with an object driven into his skull? Gross.
Carla Gugino’s lesbian Lucille is appropriately punished for spurning men (as the character Marv comments, “with her body, she could have any man she wants,” leading to the next logical question, so what does she want with chicks when she could have a man??). Imprisoned (naked) by Kevin, Lucille pulls out her arm to show Marv her missing hand (eaten by Kevin), screaming, “he made me watch!” Grosser.
Kevin himself is killed by a hacked off Marv, who (after watching cops shoot poor handless Lucille) hacks off Kevin’s arms and legs. He then waits for Kevin’s dog to arrive; the animal promptly starts to eat Kevin (who never changes his facial expression or emits a sound). Grody to the max.
Director Robert Rodriguez employs a mix of animation and real actors, filming the entire movie against a green screen; after all, he is bringing a comic book to life. Though many around me laughed as the body parts started flying, I felt rather uncomfortable sharing their glee at the complete destruction of a human body. Laughter isn’t always a sign of happiness, but the mere absurdity of the torture inflicted on heroes and villains alike in Sin City almost necessitates a comedic response. Does this mean, we as humans enjoy violence?
In considering this issue of violence, I pondered as well whether gender might influence a predisposition towards violence. Rather quickly, Tarantino’s marvelous Kill Bill series came to mind—two films that celebrate a heroine evincing revenge on her lover’s attempt to kill her. Part of the pleasure of Kill Bill lies in watching the underdog, a woman, beat the crap out of every man and woman she meets. Women kicking ass is kind of hip: consider Alias and the immortal Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
So why do I enjoy women who employ violence as a tool? Deeply rooted anger, aroused by feelings of disenfranchisement and marginalization, perhaps. Yet is the relationship between violence and power symbiotic or causal? Does violence perhaps lead to a false power position, difficult to maintain but through fear and intimidation? Do the weak enjoy violence as means to escape, or are they merely fantasizing about reclaiming control of renegade factors in life?
The moral view of the world of Sin City is rather fascinating. Here’s another game: count how many times a male character insists that he never slaps women…and then hits a woman. Or perhaps count the number of times a man justifies murder. In this lies the real heart of the film’s morality, as opposed to its (a) or (im)morality. See, it isn’t that the movie lacks a moral base; rather, the moral base is relative.
As the heroes prove again and again, killing bad guys is okay—and if they are really bad, then torture them for a while first. A priest justifies Elijah Woods’ Kevin eating people as a means to find wholeness: he eats their souls, you see. The women who brutally govern their part of town, offering their bodies for pay but only according to their rules, have established a truce with the cops. They can kill men who break the rules, but if they kill a cop, all bets are off. These characters pursue a moral code of self-interest. From a strikingly teleological perspective, characters operate within an objective moral void.
I expected to hate this movie, guessing that Rodriguez (or more to the point, comic book creator Frank Miller) would inundate me with what I call faux feminism: women deriving power by playing according to male rules: using their sexuality as a false indicator of their own agency when in fact they are only reinforcing the patriarchal objectification of women (boy I love that silly grad-school-speak). But women barely play a role in the film at all, except as instigators for male action.
Sin City is a movie about boys being boys. They fuck, sweat, bleed, fight, and die. The women, dressed in clothing (and jewelery) that no woman attempting to perform great physical action would wear, merely play out the male fantasy: hookers that smell good, with their hair blowing in the breeze, somehow maintaining their innocence in a world of filth (fully integrating yet reinforcing the virgin/whore dynamic). Never for a moment does their characterization ring true.
In this way the film fails where Kill Bill succeeds. Uma Thurman’s Bride/Beatrix, at once a woman, mother, lover, and a warrior, embraces all the aspects of her identity. Her face off with Bill delivers real stakes and the outcome costs her something: she loses a part of herself in the exchange. In Sin City, Clive Owen’s Dwight repeats the line, “she’ll always be mine and never.” Perhaps this is an indication of his inability to full grasp the nature of women, something clearly evidenced in Sin City’s depiction of women.
I didn’t hate this film. Sin City contains a lot of humor, in part due to the self-aware comic book dialogue: for example, “you’re pushing 60 and you’ve got a bum ticker.” Awesome. The film is self-aware in a lot of ways, in fact. Disguising blood with a cartoon look and the use of different colors, like white and yellow, doesn’t lessen the impact of the gore but certainly relieves the audience of feeling complicit in a realistic act of murder. But it delivers on its promise of action, impressive graphics, and depraved pleasure.
P.S. Apparently Quentin Tarantino only filmed one scene in Sin City, despite his director's credit indicating a deeper involvement in the film.