Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Sin City, 2005

Production Companies: Dimension Films, Troublemaker Studios
Distribution: Dimension Films
Executive Producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein
Producer: Elizabeth Avellan
Screenplay: Frank Miller (graphic novels)
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, Quentin Tarantino
Cinematography: Robert Rodriguez
Editor: Robert Rodriguez
Music: John Debney, Graeme Revell, Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Bruce Willis (Hartigan), Mickey Rourke (Marv), Clive Owen (Dwight), Jessica Alba (Nancy Callahan), Rosario Dawson (Gail), Benicio Del Toro (Jackie Boy), Brittany Murphy (Shellie), Nick Stahl (Roark Jr.), Elijah Wood (Kevin), Michael Clarke Duncan (Manute), Devon Aoki (Miho), Jaime King (Goldie/Wendy), Carla Gugino (Lucille)
Running Time: 124 mins.
Classification: Rated R for sustained strong stylised violence, nudity and sexual content
Box Office Gross: domestic $74m / worldwide $158m
Tagline: Walk down the right back alley in Sin City and you can find anything. Continue reading


Plot Three interrelated stories from Basin City, aka ‘Sin City’. Hartigan, an honest but ailing cop, tracks down and castrates Roark Jr, a serial rapist-murderer who is the son of a powerful senator. He saves 11-year-old Nancy, but is shot in the back by his partner. Marv, a hulking ex-con, has a night of love with Goldie, a gorgeous woman who is promptly murdered. Escaping from cops who arrive to pin the crime on him, Marv goes to Lucille, his parole officer. When thugs come for him, Marv tortures them for information. He learns that Goldie’s killer is Kevin, a cannibal. Lucille is killed, and while Marv gets the better of Kevin, he takes the rap for all the murders and goes to the electric chair. Dwight, a loner, is in a relationship with Shellie, a waitress. Her apartment is invaded by Jackie, an abusive ex-boyfriend whom Dwight humiliates. Dwight trails Jackie to Old Town, an area run by a gang of tough prostitutes queened by his ex-girlfriend Gail. An altercation between Jackie, Dwight and the Ladies results in Jackie’s death, whereupon they find out he was a cop. Becky, a treacherous hooker, tells Manute, a mobster, about the situation, who in turn kidnaps Gail. Manute sends mercenaries to prevent Dwight from disposing of Jackie’s body. Dwight gets away with Jackie’s head, and offers to exchange the head for the captured Gail, allowing the Ladies to wipe out the mobsters. Hartigan is in jail for his assault on Roark Jr. When a disfigured ‘yellow bastard’ appears in his cell with a girl’s severed finger, Hartigan confesses to Roark Jr.’s crimes and is released, then tracks down Nancy. Glimpsing the yellow bastard nearby, Hartigan realises he has been duped and has led Nancy’s former molester to her. Roark Jr. begins to torture Nancy, but Hartigan batters him to death. Knowing Nancy is in danger as long as he lives, Hartigan sends her home and shoots himself (adapted from Newman 72).

Film Note Sin City is one of the most successful neo-noir films to date, generating a total domestic gross of $74.1m and $158.7m in international sales. Although it was only the thirty-second highest grossing film of 2005 according to the website Box Office Mojo, it nonetheless attracted considerable attention due to its nostalgic revival of classic film noir narrative and performance, its fierce loyalty to the source material created by Frank Miller in the 1980s, and its distinctive and groundbreaking use of special effects.

Comic book/graphic novel adaptation Since the early 2000s, Hollywood adaptations of comic book franchises have become increasingly popular. As a result, they have received more critical attention. Whilst these films have previously been understood as shallow, gratuitous fun, much in the same way that their source material was, more recent adaptations have seen been celebrated for their innovative production methods and willingness to engage the darker subtexts of their comic book narratives. An aspect of this new seriousness in comic book adaptation is a willingness by Hollywood to adapt graphic novels written for adults. These latter had been revolutionised in the 1980s by writers such as Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman, turning the comic book form from a medium long considered to be purely aimed at young consumers into a valid literary genre that blends fiction with biography, history and poetry (Tabachnick 3). The long-standing debate over the difference between the terms “comic” and “graphic novel” through the classification of content and form, as Catherine Labio notes, “reflects a sad narrowing of the field to a very small and unrepresentative canon” (124). However, both styles have successfully crossed over into mainstream cinema through adaptation, with film able to highlight “the formal complexities of a genre that is both narrative and visual, that first flourished as a form of popular entertainment, that has a global reach, and that is formally and geographically hybrid” (Labio 123).

The capability of graphic novels to explore themes and issues often considered mature, such as politics, violence, morality, and myriad others, allows film adaptations of them to be similarly complex in their content. The Dark Knight, the second film in a re-launched Batman franchise, was one of the most successful films of 2008, dealing with weighty political and moral themes within a comic book framework: it was summed up by Roger Ebert as “a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy”, which ”redefine[s] the possibilities of the ‘comic-book movie’”. The television series The Walking Dead (2010 – present), based on a graphic novel series by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore, has received great acclaim for its insight into survival issues and its depiction of the breakdown and unconventional reconstruction through necessity of the nuclear family. Moreover, it is seen by Nancy DeWolf Smith of the Wall Street Journal to have a “theatrical grandeur” via which “the pain and glory of being human are conveyed with only the flick of a filmmaking wrist” (2010).

Sin City‘s place within this cycle is already distinctive in that it does not fall under the banner of either Marvel or DC Comics, whose output dominates the comic book genre both in film and print form, the former owning the Spider-Man and Iron Man characters (among many others), the latter counting Batman and Superman as their main properties. Film incarnations of these comic books have all been produced, marketed and released by major film studios, such as Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Brothers. By contrast, independent publisher Dark Horse Comics publishes Frank Miller’s Sin City graphic novel series, while the film version was made by director Robert Rodriguez’s own production company Troublemaker Studios, and was distributed by Dimension Films. This indicates Sin City‘s position outside of the mainstream, especially in comparison with the aforementioned more prominent and established franchises.

Despite this marginality, Rodriguez’s approach to rendering the original graphic novels in cinematic form – utilising highly particular special effects, lighting techniques and camera framing – aims to bring it as close as possible to the source material, more so than any other live-action adaptation of a graphic novel to date. Frank Miller’s own role as co-director can be seen as furthering this, as his input serves as a creative link between film and source material. This faithfulness can be seen as an aspect contributing to the commercial success of the film, sating the desire of those familiar with the graphic novels to see a loyal adaptation, and being an attraction for wider audiences thanks to the very distinct style it lends to the film.

Rodriguez explains his initial aesthetic vision for the film in an interview included as a behind-the-scenes featurette on the DVD release: “instead of trying to turn it into a movie, which would be terrible, let’s take cinema and try and make it into this book”. This leads to a discussion of the film’s use of special effects as a means of being loyal to Miller’s work. Given the fact that the most successful comic book adaptations centre around the model of the superhero, computer-generated imagery has been utilized in these films as a means of creating what Jason Dittmer calls an “enhanced visualisation of superpowers and comic book imagery in ways that resonate with viewers’ expectations more broadly”, creating an “aesthetic of astonishment” (120). Due to the technological achievement of naturalistic special effects and their role in the commercial success of the superhero blockbuster, mainstream cinema has invested vast budgets and resources into cultivating this aesthetic, seeking to make ”the imaginary come across as convincing and credible” (Dittmer 120). Sin City, however, works in the opposite direction, hyperbolizing the acts of non-superheroes through the use of stylised artifice. Extensive shooting on blue/green-screen environments, the backgrounds added in post-production, “works well when dealing with a stylised, self-contained fantasy world”, as is the case here (Newman 73).

The film’s abundant use of technology raises the concept of “digital afx”: the affective response of special effects when it is used to construct imagery in a film, as analysed by Aylish Wood (284). The use of colour in Sin City “lends itself to both interpretive and affective connections”: while in some cases it is used as a means of contributing to characterisation and narrative – the toxic yellow of the character of Roark Jr. and the golden glow of Goldie’s hair – it is also used by Rodriguez “as distraction, catching a viewer’s attention at key moments to heighten or diffuse a reaction” (Wood 291). Colour as an affective device therefore opens up the phenomenological impact of the film, creating emotive spectacle in addition to providing narrative and thematic meaning. 300 (2006), another adaptation of a Frank Miller graphic novel, capitalized on this aesthetic by using a “crushed colour palette” to create a sense of “emotive mythmaking” suited to the setting and themes of the film (Wood 292–293). While 300 did well at the box office, The Spirit (2008), a similar adaptation of another graphic novel by Miller, was a flop both domestically and internationally, and was critically savaged. This suggests that, while this technique may be a great visual feat, it is not a guarantor of commercial success.

Neo-noir: genre and gender Sin City was among a number of neo-noirs to be released during 2005, films such as Brick, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and A History of Violence all likewise presenting contemporary renditions of noir’s visual style and narrative conventions. In his review for Empire magazine Kim Newman concludes that Sin City is “Rodriguez’s best film by far and a treat for fans of good-looking girls in black-and-white, of classic film noir and of imaginative ultra-violence”. On the other hand, The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw describes it as a “flagrant pulp noir, a deeply unwholesome guignol fantasy”. These polarised comments represent the dichotomy of Sin City‘s critical reception; however, they strongly agree on the film’s neo-noir status. This utilization of classic noir narrative and character conventions, depicted with contemporary cinematic technology and performances, suggests that the film be read through a postmodern lens. This is particularly true of its construction of both genre and gender identities.

Rodriguez’s previous films, such as El Mariachi (1992), Desperado (1995) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), show a tendency towards the crime genre, in particular the “issues of integrity and violence” embedded within it (Irwin 77). His treatment of this subject matter with a “visually-oriented style of fast cuts and unusual angles” well suits Miller’s original, visual concept of Sin City and its narrative aesthetic (Irwin 72). Quentin Tarantino’s cameo as guest director is also logical, given both directors’ inclinations towards the reproduction of noir stylistics and their hybridization with distinguishable elements of other genres, such as their use of western stand-offs in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Rodriquez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), and the employment of exploitation-orientated violence in their subsequent joint directing venture, Grindhouse (2007). Mark Irwin suggests that the past work of these two directors, although appearing “at first glance to be a paste-up confusion of conventions” , is actually, upon closer inspection, “exactly the kind of synthesis of pulp tradition with popular culture that we should expect from postmodernity” (72). Consequently, Sin City fits perfectly within this vein. Miller’s source material is a conglomeration of various noir elements of narrative, characterization and visual expression, and is therefore an ideal platform upon which both Rodriguez and Tarantino can build without compromising Miller’s source material. Irwin notes that they draw upon the hybridity created by the “unexpected juxtaposition of the two poles of film style, formalism […] and realism” and that “in doing so, they go beyond the self-consciousness of contemporary neo-noir […] to reinvent the American crime film” (71).

The representation of gender in Sin City opens up a discussion of noir conventions and subversions. In his review for Sight & Sound, Newman suggests that, though the visual style emphasizes comparisons between the women depicted here and the femme fatales of the 1940s, a key difference is the absence of “murderous duplicity” in the contemporary characters (73). They may be violent and occasionally duplicitous, but their motives are generally sympathetic. As a result, Sin City reinforces the idea that, unlike traditional portrayals of women in noir, “even whores and strippers are untouchable innocents with a sideline in lethality” (Newman 73). In addition, most of the female characters are reflected as strong, cunning, and independent, leading Dana Leventhal to state that the women in Sin City “manage to outrun their stereotypes to de-centre the male narrative, but with much ambiguity”.

Nevertheless, while Newman and Leventhal suggest a certain progressiveness, the characterization of women is still paternalistic and patriarchal – the female performers in the film are all physically objectified and their strength is usually employed in the defence of their roles in servicing the needs of men. A sequence involving the prostitutes of Old Town defending their turf against the mob is rousing, but they act ultimately to secure and maintain their roles as sexual workers. Lucille, Marv’s parole officer, is, like the prostitutes, strong and in a position of authority, but is made different by her homosexuality. Perhaps as a result of this ‘otherness’ and unavailability, her death evokes much less of Marv’s outrage than the murder of Goldie: the former may have tried to help Marv, but the latter gave him sexual pleasure. Ultimately, the treatment of women in the film is constructed through traditional representation: though they are endowed with strength and sexual freedom, these traits are compensated for by their objectification and frequent imperilment, thus adhering to the traditional noir treatment of women as “leading to the destruction of man” (Broe 27).

The male in Sin City is no less bound by narrative gender limits: they appear to be either villainous figures corrupted by organizational power, or they are what Dennis Broe classifies as “sympathetic fugitives”, fighting against this corruption (26). The three male protagonists Dwight, Marv and Hartigan all possess traits that are typical to the film noir male paradigm, especially those that relate to how they interact with the iniquitous society surrounding them, to which they respond with charisma, resourcefulness and stoicism. Although they have no place within this society, “far from incurring nihilism in noir’s isolated protagonists, the absence of an ordering structure seems to instil them with a fatalism which they balance against whatever humour they can muster” (Irwin 74). As Irwin goes on to suggest, “another way [they] cope with chaos is to jury-rig some kind of ordering structure […] accomplished by a variety of time-honoured methods […] nearly always accompanied by violence” (74). This is certainly true throughout the various stories, and it can be argued that Sin City is Frank Miller’s lamentation of the death of traditional white masculinity, featuring as it does strong, honourable men crusading for justice in the face of a corrupt system. Dwight, Hartigan and Marv are besieged from all quarters at every turn in their quests for justice, to the point where they are forced to defy the law on a regular basis. Dwight’s comment on Marv’s alienation from the world around him – “he would be more at home on an ancient battlefield […] or in some roman arena” – emphasizes this social disconnection.

All three characters, moreover, appear to be of working class origin, a trait that was at the core of the characterisation of male heroes in 1940s film noir, whose criminal protagonists, in their “mode[s] of thought, language, and customs behaved very much like the working class” (Broe 29). These films, Broe states, “encouraged strong sympathy with their outside-the-law protagonists against social and corporate authority in a brief moment when, within one genre, in the heart of the cultural industry, left ideas were hegemonic” (23). He goes on to attribute the revival of film noir in the 1980s and 1990s to a “reaction to Reagan and Bush administration policies and the conventional Hollywood support for those policies” (23). As a result, Hollywood can be seen as a “national centre of [a] direct expression of class conflict” (28). Placed into this context, Sin City can be seen to extend the genre’s iconography and narrative themes, but to rephrase these to run with the grain of neoconservative versions of femininity and masculinity.

Post-9/11 Hollywood and Frank Miller’s politics Describing the manner in which cinema reflects the culture within which it is produced, Donald E. Pease states that “film’s narrative employments and the characterisation and stylised behaviour of its heroes have been formalised into a system of visual representation that over the years has acquired the power to dramatise fundamental shifts in the society’s self-representations” (130). Applying this insight to Sin City, the self-conscious nature of its focus on social and moral disillusionment as a result of a corrupt society can be seen as reflecting the political atmosphere of post-9/11 America.

The aftermath of the events of 9/11 saw a change in Hollywood’s output. According to Wheeler Winston Dixon, “Hollywood momentarily abandoned the hyper-violent spectacles that dominated mainstream late 1990s cinema. Films were temporarily shelved, sequences featuring the World Trade Center were recut, and ‘family’ films were rushed into release or production” (3). However, Sin City and its release in 2005 alongside other dark and controversial films such as Hostel and Constantine shows that “this reversal of fortune did not last long, and soon Hollywood was back to work on a series of highly successful ‘crash and burn’ movies” (3). Nevertheless, that these films returned to a pre-9/11 standard in terms of spectacle and production does not mean that they are not imbued with 9/11-influenced topics and subjects, such as immigration, religion, conspiracy and governmental oversight.

Miller himself openly espouses right-wing views, and has come under attack for them. His description of the Occupy movement is indicative: “’Occupy’ is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness” (qtd in Barnett). This mentality can be clearly seen in several of his works, his most recent and obvious being the graphic novel Holy Terror (2011), which features a superhero called The Fixer crusading against Al Qaeda. It has met with overwhelmingly negative reviews, Spencer Ackerman in particular labelling it “one of the most appalling, offensive and vindictive comics of all time”. Miller’s unapologetic Islamophobia is not overtly expressed in Sin City, unlike 300, which describes a conflict between a noble, democratic, heroic West and a menacing, mysterious, barely-human Eastern horde (Barnett). Rick Moody states that the film adaptation of Miller’s 1998 comic set in ancient Greece “is just what you would expect from the heavily-freighted right-wing comic propaganda of the post-9/11 period”. This propagandistic approach is twinned with an undercurrent of paranoia: although Sin City does not express the same exact sentiments as 300, it is still politically loaded, vigilantism shown to be the only method by which to overcome the conspiracies and corruption emanating from what Miller clearly believes to be the result of a liberal establishment, expressed through the sexual deviancy and corruption of most of the main villains, who are placed in conflict with his traditionalist heroes.

Although Hollywood cinema, and particularly comic book or graphic novel adaptations, are clearly capable of projecting different political views (the left-wing writer Alan Moore’s work V for Vendetta, adapted in 2005, and Watchmen, adapted in 2009, are examples of left-wing critique), Sin City projects a forceful and highly individualized world view, thanks to its close adaptation of source material. As shown, it adopts and modifies neo-noir convention and post-9/11 anxiety to develop this view. As Moody claims, “popular entertainment from Hollywood is – to greater or lesser extent – propaganda. And Miller has his part in that, thanks to films such as 300 and Sin City”.


Ackerman, Spencer. “Frank Miller’s Holy Terror is Fodder for Anti-Islam Set” Wired. Sep 2011. Web. 10 Dec 2012.

Barnett, David. “Are Frank Miller’s politics visible in his comics?” The Guardian. 15 Nov 2011. Web. 8 Dec 2012.

Bradshaw, Peter. “Review: Sin City.” The Guardian. 03 Jun 2005. Web. 20 Nov 2012.

Broe, Dennis. “Class, Crime, and Film Noir: Labor, the Fugitive Outsider, and the Anti-Authoritarian Tradition.” Social Justice 30.1 (2003): 22–41. Print.

DeWolf Smith, Nancy. “Everything Old is New Again.” The Wall Street Journal. 22 Oct 2010. Web. 08 Dec 2012.

Dittmer, Jason. “American Exceptionalism, Visual Effects, and the Post-9/11 Cinematic Superhero Boom.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29.1 (2011): 114–130. Print.

Dixon, Wheeler Winston. “Introduction: Something Lost – Film After 9/11.” Film and Television After 9/11 ed Wheeler Winston Dixon. Illinois: SIU Press, 2004. 1–28. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Review: The Dark 16 Jul 2008. Web. 09 Dec 2012.

Irwin, Mark. “Pulp & The Pulpit: The Films of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.” Literature & Theology 12.1 (1998): 70–79. Print.

Labio, Catherine. “What’s in a Name?: The Academic Study of Comics and the ‘Graphic Novel’.” Cinema Journal, 50.3 (2011): 123–126. Print.

Leventhal, Dana. “Superwomen?: The Bad-Ass Babes of Sin City – or Are They?” Bright Lights Film Journal 49.1 (2005). Web. 01 Dec 2012.

Moody, Rick. “Frank Miller and the Rise of Cryptofascist Hollywood.” The Guardian. 24 Nov 2011. Web. 01 Nov 2012.

Newman, Kim. “Review: Sin City.” Sight and Sound 15.6 (2005): 72–74. Print.

Newman, Kim. “Review: Sin City.” Empire Magazine. Jun 2005. Web. 8 Nov 2012.

Pease, Donald E. The New American Exceptionalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Tabachnick, Stephen E. “The Graphic Novel and the Age of Transition: A Survey and Analysis.” English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 53.1 (2010): 3–28. Print.

Wood, Aylish. “Digital AFX: Digital Dressing and Affective Shifts in Sin City and 300.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 9.3 (2011): 283 – 295. Print.

Written by Leila Sohawon (2012); edited by Nick Jones (2013), Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2013 Leila Sohawon/Mapping Contemporary Cinema


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