Sucker Punch (Theatrical Cut, 2011) – Directed by Zach Snyder – Starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung, Vanessa Hudgens, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Scott Glenn, and John Hamm.
Other than Thor, Captain America, and Green Lantern, there’s probably not a single film I wanted to be good this year as much as SUCKER PUNCH. I’m a big Zach Snyder fan and love that he has such a unique cinematic vision. I like the idea that a Zach Snyder film looks like a Zach Snyder film and not like a By Anyone Else film.
I gave the film all the positive mojo I could muster: I didn’t watch it until I was ready to watch it, and it would be the first movie I’d watch on my new flatscreen, and I’m exactly the kind of idiot who thinks it matter what the first movie you watch on a new TV is, like it will somehow make your set all the cooler to start with Fellowship of the Ring instead of Superman Returns. (You think I’m kidding? I spent at least a half hour today trying to figure out what my first Blu-Ray purchase was going to be to christen the new Blu-Ray player. I ended up getting nothing.)
All of the good vibes were for not, however, as SUCKER PUNCH is something of a trainwreck of a movie. It’s neither as smart as it thinks it is, nor as visually stunning, thanks to Snyder’s decision to soak his film in dreary shades of grey and green.
The high concept is Wizard of Oz meets Brazil, as we get one of those “story within a story” movies. Which is fine. Unfortunately, much like the disappointing Inception, delving into one fantasy world isn’t enough, and we get more watered-down “fantasy within a fantasy” sequences, which inevitably comes across as a lack of faith in the original presentation of the story.
The three-layered world of SUCKER PUNCH operates like this:
1. THE REAL WORLD – This is the world where Baby Doll is institutionalized by her sexually and physically abusive stepfather into a mental asylum. The evil stepdad pays off Blue (an orderly) to forge some documents to have Baby Doll lobotomized.
2. THE WAKING FANTASY – This is the world Baby Doll creates to get through every day drudgery of life in the asylum. In this world, they are not in a nut house, but a brothel, run by Blue, who has become a mobster in this world. Doll and her fellow inmates are exotic dancers who are used as sexual playthings by Blue and his clients, and she convinces them she has a plan to escape so they can all leave this world behind. We enter this level when we see the Doctor about to lobotomize Baby Doll.
It can be a bit confusing because we see Baby Doll admitted, told the Doctor is coming within a week, and then immediately the Doctor is standing over her, ready to turn off her brain. Only then do we enter the Waking Fantasy, but what we see is a flashback of the time between her admittance and her lobotomy.
I think this is a huge mistake on Snyder’s part, because it clearly signals to us that everything we’re going to see is a fantasy moving forward. I’m not one of those people who say that stories within a story don’t count, but it robs us of the illusion (if we would have bought it anyway) and it robs the film of the titular “sucker punch.” When Hamm re-emerges at the end of the film, it’s like, “No kidding.”
3. THE SET-PIECE FANTASY – This is the deepest fantasy level. Baby Doll’s plan involves stealing four objects from around the brothel (I’m going to describe the locations/characters based on the reality level we’re in), which the others will steal while she dances to distract everyone’s attention. (In the real world, I believe these are the moments when Baby Doll is being sexually abused by the people around the asylum.) Apparently thinking it’s not enough to watch the dancers steal actual objects from the brothel instead of mental patients from an asylum, Snyder creates these huge action pieces that take place in faraway, exotic locations: a steampunk World War I trench battle, battling orcs in order to cut some crystals out of a dragon’s throat, fighting mechanical guards on a train, and feudal Japan to fight giants.
The set pieces are big, dramatic, and right in Snyder’s wheelhouse. As individual pieces they work quite well, but in the context of the film it divorces us another step from the reality of what these women are going through.
The obvious question is why? What’s gained by this other than seeing the women in fetish wear battling CGI enemies?
Did I just answer that question with the question?
This is the level that gets Snyder in trouble, because it’s at this level of reality that he most strongly fetishizes the violence and sexuality of the women, turning them into exaggerated dolls, all dressed up with plenty of men to kill. Of course, when you realize what’s going on (one level back Baby Doll is doing an exotic dance for the crowd, and one level back from that she’s likely being raped), it adds a level of discomfort to the pleasure of watching it unfold. This fetishized world seems created specifically for us – we get to watch hot women kicking ass – but inside the film this is the world Baby Doll creates. It’s a complex idea – the fetishized sexy killer being created by the abused woman and served up for our enjoyment.
Are we supposed to feel bad about it? Are we supposed to enjoy it? It just makes me feel uncomfortable, and the film’s ultimate, supposed sucker punch – that all of this is a fantasy is both completely obvious and completely self-serving on Snyder’s part.
SUCKER PUNCH would have been far more effective playing it straight, with no obvious hint that this is all Baby Doll’s fantastical representation of reality, in which Baby Doll and the others escape and then have to work their way through all of these set pieces on some grand quest in order to rescue one of their comrades left behind, and then delivering the Brazil-esque sucker punch at the end of the film. Or it would have been better more overtly stepping in between reality levels so we can see the immediate cause and effect of reality on the fantasies and vice versa.
As constructed in its theatrical release, however, SUCKER PUNCH feels like a film hiding its story from us rather than drawing us into its world. I hear there’s a director’s cut either out or coming out, and I hope that in the construction of that extended cut that we get more narrative and less fetish. I don’t have anything against fetish, but when a film that wants to be this smart (and definitely has some smart, intriguing concepts) doles out fetish and obfuscates the ugly truth at the core of the film, I get more annoyed than impresssed.
And yet, even after watching it and not liking it, I can feel the pull of Snyder’s style working on my brain. I’m already convincing myself it wasn’t as bad as I thought, that there’s more going on than I’m giving the film credit for, that it delivers its message in a more effective manner, that the set pieces are so gorgeous and awesome that they overcome the narrative flaws.
Guaranteed, by the time I see that director’s cut in the store, I’ll have convinced myself to buy it and give it another shot.