Always one to move with the times, I've recently got round to watching 2005's big screen adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City. There's little point recapitulating the plot(s) of the six vignettes that make up the film, seeing as Wikipedia's already done it. But there are a few things I'd like to say about the violence.
Um, there's lots of it. The movie is stunning to look at, even when heads explode, limbs are hacked off, and a particularly vicious serial killer is castrated. As this hostile review points out, the violence is as copious as it is sadistic. One is tempted to say it's supposed to be. Frank Miller's graphic novels are a roid rage homage to 30s and 40s pulp crime fiction. It is a ménage à trois of redemptive violence, 1940s hyperreality, and a misogynistic/reductive view of women. Robert Rodriguez excuses his utterly faithful portrayal out of a desire to remain true to Miller's originals. For him Sin City was not so much an adaptation, more a translation. In other words, the artistic equivalent of "I wus only following orders, Guv".
And, as you might expect, the gendering of Sin City's violence is deeply problematic. You might argue it doesn't matter, that the film is a blow for equal opportunities as men and women alike are threatened, tortured and butchered. But the misogynistic devil's in the detail. Not only does the film begin and end with the murders of women, all the violence directed at them during the two hours inbetween is tied to sexuality.
Exhibit A: Goldie (Jaime King) shares a night of passion with Marv (Mickey Rourke). There are breast shots aplenty. Marv wakes up to find she's been murdered in a bid to fit him up.
Exhibit B: After escaping the police, Marv hooks up with his probation officer, Lucille (Carla Gugino). Not only does she parade around her flat in her knickers, we are told she's gay. Later Marv winds up in a serial killer's dungeon with a naked Lucille, and shortly after she gets machine gunned.
Exhibit C: It's revealed the serial killer, Kevin (Elijah Wood!), and his mentor, Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer), ate the remains of the prostitutes Kevin had killed.
Exhibit D: An evening with Dwight (Clive Owen) (where it is strongly implied they had sex) sees Shellie (Brittany Murphy) getting a post-coital slapping by her ex-boyfriend Jackie Boy (Benicio del Toro).
Exhibit E: Leader of the prostitute-controlled Old Town, Gail (Rosario Dawson) is captured and tortured by the Mob, who want to clear the women's co-op out and return it to the bad old days of pimps and violence. For good measure Dwight gives his on-off lover a slap too.
Exhibit F: Nancy (Jessica Alba) who was saved by Hartigan (Bruce Willis) in the second vignette from the clutches of a serial killer grows up to be an erotic dancer. Her would-be rapist tracks her down and starts torturing her before Hartigan saves the day again.
The linkage between sex and violence toward women is reinforced when you consider the three female characters who do not suffer physical attack. The 11 year old Nancy is abducted and threatened, but is saved. Miho (Devon Aoki) is one of the few prostitutes who wears clothes, and serves as their samurai enforcer in several slick but bloody scenes (of course, a Japanese woman must be proficient in martial arts). And lastly, Becky, the youngest and most child-like of the prostitutes (who, again, wears clothes) turns her back on her sisters and betrays Old Town to the Mob. She escapes the ensuing shoot out and having left prostitution behind, the final scene sees her share a lift with the assassin from the first scene. In contrast to the overt violence of the rest of the film, his method of killing has already been established as gentle, almost romantic.
The portrayal of women in this film doesn't send the most empowering of messages: if you're a woman and you have sex, male violence is sure to follow.
In a decade stamped by neoliberalism, big advances in biological/genetic sciences, and the mainstreaming of pornographic aesthetics, tropes and "world views", the body in culture has been objectified and reified an order of magnitude greater than the exploitation flicks of the 70s and 80s. This is a dehumanised body that's managed and dissected. It's a body for public displays of graphic sex and violence. And it's the sort of hegemonic body likely to remain at the heart of our culture for quite some time to come.
Therefore, Sin City might be zeitgeisty. It may swim with the cultural stream. And the box office takings (plus imminent sequel) suggest there's a ready audience for it. But none of this excuses its positioning of female sexuality as the source of male violence. Sin City's neither edgy or clever. It's a misogynist's wet dream.