Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
An angry god and a reverence for the dames in Sin City
God lives in Sin City.
For a movie that features a bible-toting cannibal, his corrupt cardinal sponsor, and a turncoat hooker whose ensemble blazes with hundreds of crosses, crescents and stars, Sin City stands as one of the most deeply religious movies out there today. And although the god who watches over the depraved denizens of the titular Basin City has much in common with the bipolar, schizophrenic, vengeful loony we know from Christianity, Judaism and Islam — mostly by way of the Tanakh/Old Testament for all three — the god that Frank Miller places behind the scenes of his story stakes no claim to perfection and wastes no time fretting over the ages-old problem of evil. No, this is the god of the gnostics — petulant, imperfect, far from all-powerful and fucking terrifying.
I like this guy.
Why? Because in his own twisted way, in the context of this hideously hypnotic, bracingly beautiful movie, this god makes sense. The god of Judaism would look at Basin City and see another Sodom, ripe for the smiting; but the god of Sin City looks at the same place and sees an opportunity to dispense the kind of righteous, Jacobean, Grand Guiginol justice that a jury of your peers could only imagine in their darkest, most lurid fantasies.
Yeah, maybe he could smite it, but why? Why smite such a fascinating place? Why smite the one place on earth that could produce Mickey Rourke's flawless Marv? Marv — a jolly, good-hearted Goliath who goes on a thermonuclear crusade to avenge death of the woman of his dreams, never flinching from the violence he must dole out and receive. Guns don't stop him, knives don't stop him, head-on hits from speeding cars don't stop him … he doesn't even stop when he finds out the woman of his dreams was just a hooker turning a trick.
“I didn’t know she was a hooker,” Marv says. “It doesn’t even matter.”
And it doesn’t matter to Marv, a character Rourke uses to put himself back on the Hollywood radar. Watch Rourke’s performance with the original comic (The Hard Goodbye) in hand, and you’ll see how Rourke, even while acting in a panel-for-panel cinematic translation of Frank Miller’s work, makes the role his own by underplaying it. Yeah, that’s right — he underplays it. Case in point: the scene where Marv visits his parole officer, Lucile (the heart-stopping Carla Gugino). In Miller’s book, Marv takes Lucile by the shoulders and shouts his big speech:
“There ain’t no settling down. It's going to be blood for blood and by the gallons. It’s the old days, the bad days, the all-or-nothing days. They’re back. There’s no choices left, and I’m ready for war.”
Indeed, in the book, Marv squeezes her so hard she says, “Ow!”
But Rourke, presumably with Miller’s and director Robert Rodriguez’s blessings, looks to the heavens for this speech. He raises his voice, yes (“There ain’t no settling down!”), but then he leans back and spreads his arms (in benediction?), his voice growing calmer and more serene until he simply says, “I’m ready for war.”
This calmness makes me think of religion. It’s a scary kind of calm; the calm of a religious warrior bent on martyrdom, and indeed, a Christian cross jangles and glitters around Marv’s neck until the end, when he dies in the electric chair, impatiently dismissing his last rites: “Would you get a move on? I haven’t got all night!”
Miller’s story, particularly The Hard Goodbye, courses with this sentiment: it rejects any formal religion we know but reveres the demented heroes who fight for this god. It heaps scorn upon the outwardly religious but inwardly corrupt — Elijah Wood’s bible-reading serial killer and Rutger Hauer’s morally bankrupt Cardinal Roark, for example. (Miller himself has a cold-hearted cameo as a priest who takes both barrels of a hot lead confession from Marv.)
But Miller and his bizarro god know which citizens of Sin City really, truly have good hearts. The god of Sin City rewards his heroes, if not with eternal joy, but at least with a satisfaction that their enemies will never have. I can’t believe I’m about to make this comparison, but Marv reminds me of Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Both men fight for what they believe is right until they’re executed, and Marv’s funny, junkyard-dawg dismissal of his last rites reminds me in a goofy way of More’s last few statements in Bolt’s play:
EXECUTIONER: Forgive me, sir Thomas.
MORE: Do not fear your office. You send me to god.
CROMWELL: Are you sure of that, sir Thomas?
MORE: He would not refuse one who goes to him so blithely.
And again, Marv’s last few words:
MARV (in response to the last rites): Would you get a move on? I haven’t got all night.
WARDEN: You heard the man. Hit it.
(The executioner throws the switch. Electricity jolts and fries Marv.)
MARV (blood trickling from his mouth): That the best you got, you pansies?
(They shock him again. He dies.)
Both men were disgraced publicly in court, yet both are content to die. Hell, Marv can’t wait to die, and in that, he has an advantage over More, who dies on his feet, but resigned, defeated and content in his belief that an eternity in paradise and eventual exoneration awaits him. Marv, by contrast, dies with a big, fucking invisible banner over his head that reads, “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!” Marv could give a shit about rewards or heaven or anything else. He got one beautiful thing. The bad guys took it away. He killed everyone in his path to revenge and beheaded the two motherfuckers instrumental in the death of his one, true love.
The god of Sin City also means different things to different people, and I find that very appealing. Take kindly old Detective Hartigan, who prays when his heart goes on the fritz and calmly sacrifices himself to save his one true love, Nancy Callahan. More than that, though, let’s take a look at a goofy throwaway line he has near the end. He says this line in the voice-over narration after telling Nancy that he’s going to bring down Senator Roark and his empire:
“Sure, and maybe after I've pulled off that miracle, I’ll go punch out God.”
Only in this world would such a cavalier joke about the almighty be such a sign of reverence. Hartigan’s storyline involves the least amount of religious imagery, and I admit I’m tempted to make Hartigan the one humanist among the three leads; the one atheist, the one non-religious guy who gives his life in a direct human-for-human trade, not out of any vaguely defined sense of martyrdom (as with Marv) – but I refrain from doing so because once again here’s a case where the cruel, gnostic god of this world works for me.
When you live in a world where you know for certain that there is a god, and that this god doesn’t give a damn about you, and that this god takes pleasure in the pains in your asses, you have no choice but to look inward for strength and guidance. Granted, many skeptics see the Christian-Judeo-Islamic god as this kind of character – cold, distant and capricious – and spend a lot of time lambasting religious types for believing in the omnibenevolence of this guy in debates over the ages-old problem of evil. I am one of those skeptics, but I still say that the gnostic god presides over Basin City, because that’s what Miller gives us: a world where everyone knows god is real, and that he’s a big fucking asshole.
Hartigan knows god is real, and that he’s a big fucking asshole – that’s why he knows the only way to “punch out god” is to put one over on the Roarks – god’s chief lieutenants in Basin City – by killing himself to save Nancy Callahan.
So, does my Hartigan-as-god-believer argument sound pretty shaky? Is he maybe the one non-religious-type in the story? Are his references to god and prayer simply colloquial – as meaningful as Joe Blow telling a sneezing stranger “god bless you”?
Maybe. And I admit that’s half the reason I framed my argument this way. An easy and smart-ass rebuttal to any assertion that Hartigan is an essentially secular hombre who lives and gives his life for and to humanity would be to point out his references to prayer and punching out god. And I clearly concede that Miller has crafted a bizarre world where god is a real presence. And, yes, I do see Hartigan as the one humanist in the story. Miller’s twisted god certainly counts Marv among his soldiers, and we’ll get to Dwight’s Nordic reverence for women in a moment … but what about Hartigan?
Hartigan’s references to prayer and god, I submit, are as meaningful as Joe Blow saying “god bless you.” They’re pleasantries that have settled into our vernacular, and Hartigan the humanist uses them as such. Hartigan gives his life with the same blitheness as Thomas More, to be sure, but he makes no mention of heaven or hell (unlike Marv), and the recipient of his sacrifice is very real and very close to him. Hartigan practically grows up with Nancy through her letters in prison, and both times when he sacrifices himself for her, he casts himself off as merely an old man: “An old man dies, a young girl lives. Fair trade.”
Having written all that, though, I find that I’m no longer even sure where Hartigan stands with the wrathful god of Miller's world … and that’s probably a good thing. Religious symbology stands at the center of Miller’s vision — indeed, holy symbols litter this world — but outright religious beliefs are not made clear. We know Marv is religious, based on his cross pendant and his belief that Goldie is worth “going to hell for.” We suspect that Hartigan harbors some kind of belief for the aforementioned reasons.
Then there’s Dwight and the whole Big Fat Kill storyline. What to make of this in the context of Miller’s off-kilter religious world? It features a loathsome, corrupt, misogynistic cop; hookers with hearts of stone; and a hero with a surgically altered face. The segment ends with a bloody shootout, a slaughter during which Dwight concedes that he and "the valkyrie at his side" laugh and shout "with the pure, hateful, bloodthirsty joy of the slaughter."
Despite all that, however, this is hands-down the most religious of the three segments. That’s right, even more religious than Marv’s crusade to avenge Goldie. And Miller does it entirely with symbology, entirely with religious iconography that he peppered across The Big Fat Kill. To wit:
1. Alexis Bledel plays Becky, a turncoat hooker who rats on her sisters. Her outfit: skimpy hooker gear and hundreds upon hundreds of necklaces, earrings and bracelets, all of them glittering and glimmering with crosses, crescents and stars.
2. At one point, Dwight stands against a backdrop of twisted metal and shattered wood; from it, a gnarled Christian cross emerges.
Why is any of this shit important? Because Miller is completely fucking with us. He throws around religious symbols — especially the Christian cross — willy-nilly, and leaves it to us to determine if he’s making fun of religion, if he’s lambasting it or if he’s paying homage to it. He leaves the interpretation entirely up to us with nothing but the context of the scene as a guide.
He’s completely baffled me, and I love it.
Readily and happily I concede that although I am sure that the angry, imperfect god of the gnostics rules Basin City, I am ultimately not sure what to make of the world that this crazypants god — Miller, in other words — has created.
But I can certainly make a guess:
If you live in Basin City, you try your best to do right by your friends. You have no choice but to do right by your friends, because you don’t know for sure whether doing right by the lord will do any good.
Marv knows exactly what he has to do, and he does it. Miller decorates him reverently with a Christian cross pendant. Good guy.
Kevin eats women and is seen reading a bible emblazoned with a blazing cross. Bad guy.
Dwight stands astride a shattered city, a Christian cross rising beside him. Good guy.
Cardinal Roark is an actual clergyman who sponsors Kevin the serial killer because of his beautiful voice. Bad guy.
Hartigan wears a cross right on his body: the criss-crossing scar on his forehead. Good guy — maybe the best.
Becky wears hundreds of pendants, bracelets and earrings bearing symbols of different religions, including dozens of crosses — and she’s a bad, bad girl.
So what’s the difference? Ostentatiousness. The bad guys bury themselves in religion — Becky with her hundreds of pendants, Roark with his life in the cloth and Kevin with his blindingly bright bible. Our three heroes, by contrast, wear no such trappings. Our heroes all share a reverence for life — and most important, women.
Indeed, Marv, Dwight and Hartigan share a common mission in that they’re all trying to do right by the dames. Marv bulldozes the city to avenge the woman he loves. Dwight almost drowns in oil before entering into an apocalyptic gun battle to help the warrior-hookers of Old Town. And kind old Hartigan kills himself to protect the angelic stripper Nancy.
Reverence for women. There’s a phrase you don’t see often associated with crime fiction, which usually features soulless, demonic fatales (James Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice; Jim Thompson’s The Grifters); or dim-witted, spineless manipulators (Hammett's The Maltese Falcon; many of Mickey Spillane’s grand old potboilers); but a general contempt for women is a hallmark of the genre — a hallmark that Miller roundly rejects in his high-contrast ode to the weirdness of religion and the holiness of women.
That said, let’s not forget about the underrated opening to the movie — a wonderful short film that Rodriguez shot in one day to show Miller how well his vision could look on film. In it, Josh Hartnett plays a hit man who kills a woman who hired him to help her commit suicide. Got that? She hired him to kill her so she could stop running from an unnamed threat. She wanted to die, but she didn’t want to die alone. This same hit man — a healer in the movie’s opening — reappears at the end to punish Becky the turncoat hooker. How fitting that the movie’s three main stories involve men reverently fighting to honor the lives of women, and its bookends involve a man who reverently murders women.
Miller gives us an angry, hopeless world in Basin City, and to the citizens of Sin City he gives an angry god and a corrupt power structure that oppresses them entirely. It would be a tough movie to like if Miller didn’t populate it with such wonderful human beings who love life so much that they know when to take it.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.