Post #11: Nancy’s Got a Brand New Bag, or, Miller and the Critics
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Sunday December 7 2014
Frank Miller created, wrote, and illustrated the Sin City comic book series, installments of which were published by Dark Horse intermittently from 1991’s The Hard Goodbye to Hell and Back in 1999/2000. When Robert Rodriguez directed 2005’s Sin City, he stayed faithful to the source material, to the point that some might call the film a shot-for-shot remake of the comics. Rodriguez’ second outing with Sin City, 2014’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For similarly looks to Miller’s work: about two-thirds adapts Miller’s A Dame to Kill For and Just Another Saturday Night, but the rest consists of two new tales. Miller wrote these stories, though they haven’t shown up in comic form. Speaking of which, where is Xerxes, which he promised us would accompany 300: Rise of an Empire?
My eyes were satisfied with Rodriguez’ cinematic version of A Dame to Kill For but I was disappointed that the comic book’s nods to ancient Greek culture were excised. In Miller’s version Dwight has a boss named Agamemnon, who in one scene wears a shirt that has the words KOPROS FANETAI (“shit happens” in ancient Greek) (figure 1). Dwight’s many references to Thermopylae, which appear in the comic version of The Big Fat Kill, similarly don’t appear in the 2005 film. Ah, well. At least Senator Rourke has a reproduction of the Venus de Milo lounging in his office in the 2014 film.
The first new story of the 2014 film concerns a young gambler with almost Scarlet Witch-level powers to make his own luck. Unfortunately, in a high-stakes poker game he runs afoul of Senator Rourke, who was also a major antagonist of the first film. After implying that the gambler is his son, Rourke shoots him dead. The second story picks up a thread from the first film. Nancy Callahan, a stripper at a club frequented by most of the Sin City protagonists, is dealing with the death of John Hartigan, a police officer who protected her from Rourke’s psychotic son. To make sure the senator wouldn’t go after her, Hartigan killed that yellow bastard (see what I did there?) and then committed suicide at the end of Sin City.
If all of this sounds a little misogynistic, that’s because it is. This is partly due to the subject matter—Sin City is a go-for-broke version of the hard-boiled yarns by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane. I can find little redeeming in the female characters of A Dame to Kill For--the main antagonist, Ava Lord, is a woman who manipulates men through sex to kill others and themselves.
Nancy is a voice-less fetish object in this storyline, as she is in most of Miller’s work. Even in That Yellow Bastard when her character is given dimension through her friendship and romance with John Hartigan, she is little more than a damsel in distress.
In the storyline of the 2014 film, aptly called “Nancy’s Last Dance”, she wants to kill Rourke but finds herself unable to doso. She mourns at Hartigan’s grave, drinks heavily (figure 2), and has visions of Hartigan (figure 3), who warns her not to give in to her desire for revenge. During a nighttime bender she decides to go after Rourke in his base of operations. She cuts her hair and slices her face with the shards of a mirror, leaving long, jagged scars (figure 4). Nancy has become an avenging angel, or, we might go so far to say, a superheroine.
This storyline, it seems to me, is a direct response by Miller to the criticisms of misogynism leveled at his work and the 2005 film in particular. Google delivers a plethora of harsh words with the inputs “Sin City” and “misogynism”, and famous comics scribe Alan Moore once called Sin City “unreconstructed misogyny.” 2014‘s Nancy changes from a powerless stripper to a woman more in the Robert Rodriguez mode of Cherry Darling (the “Planet Terror” segment in 2007’s Grindhouse)--come to think of it, Cherry Darling has a comparable character arc, from stripper to savior of humanity. But while Cherry loses a leg that she replaces with a machine gun, Nancy voluntarily disfigures herself and takes bloody revenge like her Sin City fellows Hartigan and Marv (who helps her get her revenge).
But Miller isn’t content just with empowering a past character who served primarily as a fetish object for audiences internal and external. Nancy becomes a warrior, killing Senator Rourke in the last scene, thus fulfilling the unresolved conflict of the first Sin City, but she also loses her humanity. As Nietzche once wrote, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” Or, in Nancy’s words that close the film: “This rotten town. It soils everybody.” This is Miller’s defiant reply to his critics: he empowers Nancy, changing her from a powerless object of the male gaze to a crossbow-wielding badass, but that comes at the cost of her soul