Returning to the opening scene of the film, there is a moment where the camera cuts to a long shot showing the man and the woman in full as white silhouettes against a sheer black background. This is a visual technique that is repeated throughout the film. For example, when Marv has a dog eat the serial murderer Kevin’s dismembered torso in “The Hard Goodbye,” another long shot turns the crouching figure of Marv, the dog, and Kevin into pure white figures. Goodness is relative in the world of Sin City, but here a serial murderer/cannibal is getting justice at the hands of Marv.
As aforementioned, when Dwight ends up getting blown into a tar pit in “The Big Fat Kill,” he becomes a white silhouette floating in the blackness of the tar. A second white figure reaches down through the darkness and saves him. Here, Dwight is trying his best to prevent all-out war and further death. Therefore, both he and his savior are colored white to depict their positive moral standing.
Scott McCloud suggests that characters and objects in comics can rest anywhere on a sliding scale between realistic and abstractionist. The silhouettes, while recognizable as human forms, are much closer to the simpler abstractionist end of the spectrum than the realistic end. Conversely, when an actor appears onscreen or a character bleeds normal red blood, they are offering relatively realistic, complex depictions of those people and objects.
This oscillation between realism and abstractionism helps to show both the vulnerability and invincibility of these characters at different points in the film. Indeed, despite the transition from generally abstract drawings to live actors, the denizens of Sin City still managed to retain their comic book world resilience and virtual indestructibility when the plot demands it. Marv, the gruff, scarred protagonist of “The Hard Goodbye,” is a particularly good example of this cartoon-like invincible constitution.
After waking up to find Goldie dead in his bed, Marv begins a superhuman rampage on his enemies. He knocks down the door to his apartment, throwing several armed police officers through the air. Then he jumps down several flights of stairs without any apparent physical damage. Running away from his apartment building, he charges an oncoming police car, dropkicks it through the windshield, and hijacks it, all while the vehicle is in motion.
Later in that story, Goldie’s twin sister Wendy tries to kill Marv by driving into him repeatedly at full speed with her convertible. Marv goes flying every time the car hits him, but after three or four intense collisions, he gets up as if nothing happened. Finally, trapped in a jail cell, Marv manages to rip metal bars out of a solid cement wall with his bare hands as he makes his escape.
While the idea of these invincible abstractionist characters is plausible in the world of the graphic novel, on film, there is dissonance between their appearance and their superhuman abilities. While they seem like real people visually, the characters have cartoon resilience in the vein of old Looney Tunes or Tom and Jerry shorts. This discrepancy pushes the boundaries of what the audience can and will accept as live-action or animation.
The filmmaker’s commitment to the source material also required that Miller’s nihilistic, ultra violent, generally amoral world was transposed into the film unscathed. While the borders between good and bad and criminal and lawful were always vague in film noir, the character motivations were usually rationalized, if not always sympathetic. In Sin City, protagonists brutalize, torture, and murder their way toward their end goal, even if reaching that goal does not necessarily require such intense measures.
For example, Mickey Rourke’s character Marv takes the syntax of mystery-solving to an extreme when he wakes up one morning next to a dead prostitute named Goldie. Framed for a murder he did not commit, Marv kills police, hit men, and serial murderers on his path to the truth about who set him up. Along the way, Marv makes sure to exacerbate the pain he inflicts on his victims which he justifies based on their respective crimes: crooked cops, paid assassins, and merciless serial murderers.
This heightened and explicit methodology in crime-solving seems foreign to audiences familiar with Raymond Chandler novels of the 40s and the 50s. However, the 1957 Chester Himes novel, A Rage in Harlem, offers a similarly exaggerated take on the world of film noir. According to film scholar Manthia Diawara, Himes uses cartoonish, fetishized violence to express the phenomenon of “black rage” as his characters “slip in and out of rationality.” In Sin City, a very similar oscillation between rational and irrational behavior takes place. The main difference between Frank Miller’s work and the Himes novel is that the protagonists of these stories are all white, not black; this gives the violence in Sin City a different purpose that is less of a social commentary. Here, it sets a tone of generalized rage that resonates across all story lines and characters and helps to establish the world in which these characters live.