Black and White
Be honest, who amongst you long awaited the belated sequel to Sin City? The first, for all its gruffness and nihilism, was all surface. Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez, a couple of reconstructed teen boy misogynists with a giant train set, if ever there were two, got a lot of attention with their living comic book. Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy had got there fifteen years earlier, and with more panache, but a computer generated sinkhole got the headlines back in the heady days of the mid-noughties. The Phantom Menace generation didn’t mind a texture-free, tactile-less world it seemed, as long as you remembered to add judicious tits and violence.
Nine years later we’re back in Sin City and nothing’s changed. This is plastic film noir, stripped of the grain and psychological dimension that made the genre. The paradox of the movie’s aesthetic is that it strips the environment of the very thing required to sustain it: grit. Each shot is crisp, each rendered backdrop clean. The clinical digital photography sanitises as it records. What could be more anathema to the noir sensibility that a set of stark panels, shorn of depth and coarseness? Miller’s comic book had a medium to back up its look. Transferred to film, the artifice kills the form. Expressionist lighting and green screen are like oil and water, they make a lousy toast.
Uncouple the script from the aesthetic and what have you got? Genre clichés. At no point does A Dame to Kill For look and sound anything other than a pastiche, and a lazy one at that. There’s a checklist of staples: voice over, wronged men, spider-women, sleaze and corruption, but it’s handled like a Chandler theme park attraction. Miller’s script is brutal but divested of moral ambiguity; it’s humourless and boorishly literal. The Hays Code, that old Hollywood prohibition on gratuitous sex and violence, forced screenwriters to be inventive, to serrate the dialogue and dote on suggestion. Miller offers up the real thing; nudity and blood, albeit stylised to neuter the impact. What’s lost? Art.
The trick with Noir is to elevate types with memorable add-ons – a sharp line, a larger than life personality (see John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown or Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye). Miller and Rodriguez’s movie is all types, despite superior casting. Eva Green’s body adds the vitality her part otherwise lacks, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin and Powers Boothe, though committed, can’t imbue their characters with any interiority. Men are men and women are broken whores. That, for Miller, is the genre. We know he was better than this once; the tragedy is that he doesn’t. “Life left her with a sigh,” says one cardboard cut-out of another’s demise. We leave the movie the same way.