Being sick is never fun. But when I was struck by a virus a few weeks ago, I took the opportunity to watch one of the great pulp action movies of the 2000s: Sin City.
The film adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novels is one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. Directed by Miller and Quentin Tarantino collaborator Robert Rodriguez, it contains plenty of sex and violence—but it’s done with style and story, which makes it feel more artistic than gratuitous.
Among a star-studded cast that includes Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro, Rosario Dawson, and Elijah Wood, it’s still Mickey Rourke who stands out above and beyond the rest in Sin City. The onetime pretty boy of the 80s plays Marv, a tough-as-nails hard case who exacts revenge against the crime lords of Sin City who murdered a young prostitute. Marv’s murderous methods of revenge are unjust, and he pays the ultimate price for his actions, but Rourke shines in his role as a street tough taking on the real bad guys of Sin City: corrupt politicians and a wicked police state.
And this is where I gleaned something new from Sin City, a movie I had not watched in at least a decade (probably much longer).
Senator Roark's Speech
The late Powers Boothe (1948-2017) only has a small role in Sin City, playing the corrupt Senator Ethan Roark Sr. Though he’s the primary antagonist in the Sin City comics, Senator Roark isn’t seen much in Sin City the movie, unlike Roark’s son ('That Yellow Bastard,' played by Nick Stahl) and the senator’s brother (Cardinal Roark, played by Rutger Hauer).
Unlike Senator Roark, both of these villains experience unceremonious endings in the film. Cardinal Roark is killed by Marv, who discovered the religious leader was killing prostitutes (and consuming them). Roark Junior, a rapist and pedophile, is castrated by Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a burned-out ex-cop wrongfully imprisoned until he finally signs a false confession.
Though he’s featured less prominently than his evil relatives, Senator Roark makes an even larger impression in some ways. He may not be as sexually depraved as his son or as barbaric as his brother, but he’s just as bad and more real. He’s a politician that cares for nothing but power, and in an epic monologue to Hartigan—who’s lying in a hospital bed after saving a little girl from Roark Junior—Roark explains the source of his power.
“Power don't come from a badge or a gun. Power comes from lying. Lying big, and gettin' the whole damn world to play along with you,” Roark says. “Once you got everybody agreeing with what they know in their hearts ain't true, you've got 'em by the balls.”
The senator then tells Hartigan that he could “pump you full of bullets right now” and not face any consequences.
“Everyone would lie for me, everyone who counts,” Roark tells Hartigan at gunpoint.
Live Not By Lies
Roark’s speech didn’t make much of an impression when I first watched Sin City in the movie theater in 2005. But seventeen years later, after reading The Gulag Archipelago and other great works from Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, I now understand what the monologue means. And it scares me a little.
Solzhenitsyn, who himself was sentenced to years in the gulag for making a quip about Stalin in a private letter to a friend, understood that lying and violence are intertwined. In Live Not By Lies, he explained that violence cannot last very long without lies, because it quickly exhausts itself.
“When violence intrudes into peaceful life, its face glows with self-confidence, as if it were carrying a banner and shouting: 'I am violence. Run away, make way for me — I will crush you.' But violence quickly grows old,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “After only a few years it loses confidence in itself, and in order to maintain a respectable face it summons falsehood as its ally—since violence can conceal itself with nothing except lies, and the lies can be maintained only by violence.”
This is why violence changes. It cannot sustain itself long alone, so it pivots: “it demands of its subjects only that they pledge allegiance to lies, that they participate in falsehood.”
This is what Roark means when he says, “Once you got everybody agreeing with what they know in their hearts ain't true, you've got 'em by the balls.” True power is getting the rest of the world to participate in deceit.
This is why Solzhenitsyn, in his 1972 Nobel speech, urged people to do one single, extraordinary thing: do not participate in falsehood.
“The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions!” he wrote. “His rule: Let that come into the world, let it even reign supreme—only not through me.”
While the former sentence gets the most attention, the latter also deserves attention. Solzhenitsyn is conceding that lies will come into the world, and that they may even “reign supreme” for a time. But his call is to individuals: do not participate in them yourself.
This was Solzhenitsyn’s message to all brave men and women, and it’s the key to defeating the Senator Roarks of the world.
I have no idea if Frank Miller or Robert Rodriguez ever read Solzhenitsyn, but it’s clear they understand political power and violence are intertwined with falsehood. And when I look at the world today and see the decay of truth, it frightens me a little.