The latest collaboration between pulp filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and noir comic book creator Frank Miller, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is all look, that is to say, it is a spectacle, fully embracing and embodying the “patriarchal culture” of cinema Laura Mulvey critiques (232). As in the first Sin City, A Dame to Kill For is marked by its hyperstylized aesthetic, Frank Miller’s characteristic comic book style transposed onto the screen. But, unlike the first film, A Dame to Kill For doesn’t surprise or revolutionize. It succeeds only in drawing attention to its own voyeurism and misogyny, reinforcing the dominance of the male gaze, and the incredible lengths to which females must go to escape it.
In title alone A Dame to Kill For promises to fulfill the “fantasies and obsessions” of men, eighteen to thirty-five, the target demographic (232). The movie is structured around Ava, the dame, played by Eva Green, and though she repeatedly demonstrates her power over the men of the film, her agency is a construction. She is not a dame who kills (though she does), but a dame to kill for. The movie is built on this trope: hulking, hard men, doing violence to, for, and over the “silent image of woman” (232). Ava speaks, proves herself a skilled manipulator, but it is only when she bares herself, accepts her role as image, that her (lack of) power is consummated. She must give herself up as an object in order to be an agent. The power she wields is not just an illusion, but an example of the “straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference” that constrains her (232). Her semblance of agency is a means to her ends as an object. Any action she takes only furthers the actions of the other male characters—she acts, but as a cog, spinning and spinning, playing the same role over and over again. She dreams of a life no longer on her back, but her world, the franchise, the cinema, take away any hope she might have. The only freedom she obtains is a bullet. Her power is as an object, but such power is really no power at all.
If Ava is Mulvey’s “silent image” then Dwight (Josh Brolin) is the voyeur. The primary protagonist of A Dame to Kill For, Dwight is a private investigator. When he isn’t killing people, he spends his time in Basin City snapping pictures through windows. His voyeurism is, within the world of Sin City, legitimized by his profession, but to the viewer only deepens and complicates the scopophilic encoding of film. Mulvey talks about Freud’s conception of scopophilia as “one of the component instincts of sexuality,” that is, the “pleasure in looking at another person as object” (234). But in order for such pleasure to be obtained, there must be a separation between look and object. The movie theatre itself creates this separation, contrasting the dark of the auditorium with the brightness of the screen, giving “an illusion of looking in on a private world” (234). And so there is a layering at work in A Dame to Kill For, movie-goers looking in on Dwight who looks in on others. This creates a doubled “illusion of voyeuristic separation” (234). Such positioning is “blatantly one of repression of their [the audience’s] exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer” (234). A Dame to Kill For makes the look, the gaze, subject in itself.
Dwight watches as Joey, played by Ray Liotta, cheats on his wife with a prostitute. She is identified as such, and thus as object, by splashes of colour against the black and white backdrop of the rest of the film (a trademark of the franchise), and by her voice. She plays a character (again, the doubling. An actress playing a prostitute playing as Joey’s fantasy). Joey handcuffs her to the bed, object controlled, bounded by the mattress, while he undresses, talking all the while about how hard his life is, how unfair his wife is. The woman plays into his masculinity, his power, and as he gets on top of her and pounds her (it’s the only word—“love making” in a romantic sense is absent from the movie) she tells him over and over that he’s the boss, he’s the boss, and he repeats it, thrusting and grunting, until he expires. She is “tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” (232). She tells him what he wants to hear, lies (speech and posture) as he reaffirms his masculinity, his dominance. She “raises her child into the symbolic” by bringing Joey back into the maternal place, “the bleeding wound,” teaching him language (you’re the boss, you’re the boss), “give[s] way to the word, the name of the father and the law,” which is in turn the vehicle of her own domination (232). Like Ava she is a means to an ends, but the ends are double. Joey enters “into the symbolic” through her, and the viewer satisfies his scopophilic urge while maintaining the necessary distance for satisfaction. Her nudity is on display, used by Joey, but Dwight’s impassivity as he watches gives the viewer comfort. The eroticism of the scene satisfies the ego while keeping the violence of it at a remove. Repressed desire is satisfied and repressed again. After Joey has his fill he leaves the woman cuffed to the bed. He tells her he has to kill her, his wife can never know. He is whole again and no longer needs her. Dwight jumps through the skylight, beats Joey to a bloody stupor, and saves the woman. He takes the handcuffs off her and uses them to lock Joey to the bed. Dwight takes his pictures to Joey’s wife. Justice served. The viewer identifies with Dwight, so he avoids guilt of violence. But as Mulvey argues, the collapsible nature of the gaze allows the viewer to be conflated with Dwight, and thus with Joey, as one scopophilic, active, masculine ego.
A Dame to Kill For satisfies, as Mulvey says of cinema as a whole, both the “primordial wish for pleasurable looking” and “scopophilia in its narcissistic aspect” (234). The way cinema fixes the gaze “allow[s] temporary loss of ego while simultaneously reinforcing it” (235). As in the scene above, viewer and character are conflated, the “male movie star’s glamorous characteristics” are for the viewer those characteristics of “the more perfect, more complete, more powerful ideal ego” (237). The three heroes of A Dame to Kill For, Dwight (Josh Brolin), Marv (Mickey Rourke), and Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) serve this narcissistic function. Each is more than a man—Marv especially so, an indestructible hulk—and the plot is moved forward by their agency. As Mulvey identifies, “the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look” (237). Dwight looks at Ava, Marv looks at Nancy, Johnny looks at Marcie, and each man drives their particular story, pushed by their looking. Again, the title is significant: the dame is not just Ava but Nancy and Marcie, the killing done by the three primary protagonists. Object and action. The film circles around and around on itself, driving home its theme. Men are men because they kill, and men kill because of dames. As the objects around which such violence is oriented, women become the masculinizing vehicle for these men, and because “the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined” (as seen above with the conflation of the lens) the moviegoer himself can become a man by watching the violence of the movie star.
The agency and manhood of the three heroes of A Dame to Kill For is further concretized by the monologue, the voiceover, one of the defining tropes of the franchise. As in the first movie, characters’ voices are heard more frequently as narration than as natural dialogue. They tell us what we need to know: what is happening, who is doing what, how they are feeling. But with fewer acts and fewer point-of-view characters than the first movie, Dwight, Marv, and Johnny monopolize the monologue, and like the violent acts they commit, signify their primacy in the frame by doing so. The story is their story and so it is they who frame it with their words. They control the plot through violence, through their own acts, but they control how the viewer perceives their actions through their speech. And so, the woman who teaches language to her child is once again the passive masculinizing agent. The power to narrate is the power to frame, the power to “control images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle” (232). Often the narration is of events happening in real time, confusing and muddling the already hyperaesthetic display. Flashes of light and colour, absurd splashes of blood, copious nudity—A Dame to Kill For revels in sensory overload. This overload is only compounded by the incessant narration of the film’s protagonists, the constant retelling, reframing, reassertion of control. Women, “bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command,” remain silent (232). They speak, of course, but they are refused the right of narration, the right of the frame. They can only inhabit it.
Until Nancy. Nancy (played by Jessica Alba) returns from the first film, the stripper with a heart of gold. This go around she gets to be the star of her own story, the fourth protagonist of the film. As a stripper, most of the movie we see her in the bar, dancing. The ultimate instance of the male gaze. She doesn’t speak, only dances, gyrates, sways, the perfect object of desire. Her performance is as much for the audience in the bar as it is for the audience in the movie theatre. She spends much of the movie drunk and distraught over the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis) from the first movie, a father figure and her protector. Every night she dances, often with a gun in hand, and dreams of shooting the man responsible for Hartigan’s death. But every night she is unable to pull the trigger, unable to act, and so spirals deeper and deeper into depression. We learn of her struggle, not through monologue, but actual speech (a novelty in this film). Dwight and Marv and Johnny can only express themselves through monologue, and even then their faces are blank, stoic. But Nancy emotes, her speech united with her pain. In the last act of the movie Nancy gets her chance to tell the story, to direct the action, and she takes the stage, her last dance. She brings a strength to her performance, a violence of motion, that the viewer hasn’t seen before. And she narrates: her one monologue, the only expression she is allowed on stage, in the world of men, because men themselves are only able to communicate in that form. Islands of empty expression. The stink, the loosers, she smells it, she can’t deny it anymore, she’s done. She knows what she has to do, what action to take. Her dance over, she goes in the back and smashes her face into the mirror. Pretty pretty pretty. She repeats the word—her label, her frame— scars her face with a piece of glass, taking away her “to-be-looked-at-ness” (236). She does violence to herself, the only act she can perform, the act that gives speech, control, agency. She becomes the “bleeding wound,” the “male other,” the “castration” complex (232). Her indeterminacy makes her a threat. No longer an object, but not quite a man. She does not “gracefully give way to the word,” does not accept her place as “bearer, not maker, of meaning” but takes the word, the power of making, of doing into her own hands (232).
In the final moments of the film, Nancy has her man, Roark, at her mercy. She is going to kill him, the viewer is waiting, knows it will happen, but before she pulls the trigger, she speaks: “this one’s for John Hartigan, fucker.” The only fuck in the entire movie, the word that embodies the masculine conflation of violence and eroticism, word and action, and Nancy says it, reclaims it, turns it back on the men, the man, who abused her. She takes “the word” (232) and shoots Roark in the head. But even this does not completely empower her. Gouging her face may solve her symbolic problem, but Marv still says she’s hot, and the viewer agrees, the lens collapses. That she must do such horrific violence to herself to gain her freedom is no victory. She overcomes her world but the franchise and the cinema remains, and as long as it does, her status as object will go unchanged.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Critical Theory. Ed. Robert Dale Parker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 231-241. Print.
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Dir. Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez. 2014. Film.