Violence in the movies is something that's usually well-advertised. Whether it's "Saving Private Ryan" or "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," the ticket-buyer usually knows what's in store. The title of the latest weekend box-office champ, "Sin City," might give you a clue (as would the R rating), but viewers are leaving the theater shocked at the gratuitous level of violence and sexual depravity in the film.
One stunned friend guessed that if the filmmakers didn't reduce the shock a little by filming in black and white, "there's no way it would be an R-rated movie instead of an NC-17." They even change the color of blood, making it black, white or yellow to "suit the mood."
On one Web site where average Joes rate the flicks, you can sense the revulsion. One wrote, "It relishes in the violence to the point that it becomes sadistic mayhem for the sake of sadistic mayhem." But the show's target audience had a different, disgusting reaction: "I laughed when I should have been gasping in horror -- sicko that I am -- two severed limbs up for me."
It's depressing to think of Hollywood executives in a business meeting trying to calculate how to please people like this, when they should be hustling them off to therapy.
"Gore City" might be a better title if advertising were the only goal. The film is hailed as a faithful recreation of the dark comic-book series "Sin City" by Frank Miller. Since there's nothing comical about mass murder, the purveyors prefer the more serious-sounding term "graphic novel," with the emphasis here on "graphic." The director at the helm of this boat, steering his way through the blood flood, is Robert Rodriguez, who leads a whiplash-inducing double life, creating gory adult movies as well as the wildly popular "Spy Kids" trilogy.
The list of violent acts goes on and on: in addition to many fatal shootings, including the crooked priest shot in the confessional, there's people struck in the head with sledgehammers and hatchets, decapitations with a head that is used like a ball, a dog chewing on a corpse, corpses cut into pieces for disposal, an electrocution. Did I forget the cannibal who keeps chopped-off heads on his wall? Or the pedophile who gets his penis ripped off?
Even some movie critics -- who have a habit of praising to the skies the whirling-dervish decapitations of your average Quentin Tarantino gorefest -- are choking on this spectacle. Joe MacLeod of Baltimore's City Paper weekly warned that "there's so much blood flying around Sin City you're gonna feel like donning lab goggles and a raincoat." He concluded that once you've seen it, "you'll never, never get the stain out of your soul."
William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer argued the film's "pornography of brutality" suggests we're sitting "like Romans at the Coliseum, watching people being decapitated, disemboweled, dismembered, castrated and humiliated." Lawrence Toppman of the Charlotte Observer even protested that the movie shows the failure of the movie ratings system: "Talking bluntly about sex for five minutes will earn an NC-17. Showing it frankly for one minute will do the same. Maiming and slaying people in close-up for two hours -- and delighting in it -- will get you only an R."
But from the Two Severed Limbs Up school of film criticism, there's always David Edelstein of Slate.com, who found "the most relentless display of torture and sadism I've encountered in a mainstream movie. ... I loved it. Or, to put it another way, I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I loved every gorgeous, sick, disgusting, ravishing, overbaked, blood-spurting, artificial frame of it." He concluded the review: "It seems pointless to tut-tut over the depravity. 'Sin City' is like a must-have coffee-table book for your interior torture chamber."
Slate.com should never be allowed to lecture anyone ever again about morality of any kind.
Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post bluntly declared the film "a pure product of the American death cult ... and damn, it's really good. So do you say: This film is perverse and should be banned for it will fascinate all too many of the impressionable young with its aggressive nihilism? Or do you say: It's so gorgeous and seductive and such a mesmerizing experience, you just have to let it be what it is and not apply the laws of taste and society to it. ... I have no idea."
There's one huge problem with film critics. It's fine to appreciate the art of something, but not to the utter exclusion of a social conscience. Film is not just entertaining, it can be intoxicating. It can be a very malignant influence. Can you sit on the fence as this cinematic disease spreads? Just wait until the "Sin City" DVD starts traveling around in teenager backpacks.