"Am I the only one who liked this film?" a middle-aged woman's saying, talking to two other people. We've all just come out of SUCKER PUNCH, which just opened in theaters. When your number's in the 30's on Metacritic, I think it's pretty safe to say that she and I are among the few who liked this film. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not going to argue that it's not campy and over-stylized, nor get too much into how or why this is not a perfect film. What interests me is what Zack Snyder did right.
A sucker punch, as you may remember from the schoolyard is an unexpected blow. This film takes a shot at our ideas about who we think we are. Mr. Snyder makes you think it's a movie about sex. But it's not, it's about integration: personal accountability, maturity and moving forward.
Critics haven't liked the device of nesting "fantasies within fantasies," but this is exactly what many people do when they are under extreme stress: they disassociate. The entire film is about prodding the main character to take control and wake up from her delusions, even as they give her comfort. These are lofty themes, so what better way than to ground these ideas than in something humanity loves to think about - sex.
Zack Snyder knows what sexy is. If you don't believe me, watch 300 and or the WATCHMEN again, look at Gerard Butler or Malin Akerman, wait no, look at all the characters - they are all imbued with a kind of sexuality/energy/charisma. We all have it Mr. Snyder seems to want to be saying. He uses sexiness as a way of illuminating some essential truth about who we are: We're all sexy. We are all vital.
How does SUCKER PUNCH discuss this idea? By pitting extreme versions of all aspects of ourselves: the sexy parts, the dark parts, the gluttonous parts, the longing parts, the masculine, the feminine, the childlike, the maternal, the paternal.
In a sense, yes, it's like JACOB'S LADDER and other films, where so much action takes place in the character's head, as so noted in this review. Critics really haven't liked the device of nesting "fantasies within fantasies," but this is exactly what many traumatized people do. They often pop out of their reality and into another. As Brian Trappler, M.D writes for Psychology Today, "The most extreme immediate response to severe emotional trauma is called 'dissociation,' a condition in which a person's awareness and ability to engage psychologically in the present is temporarily lost."
So the main character, Baby Doll (Emily Browning), confronted with the high stress of incarceration in a loony bin - creates a fantasy that she's in a whorehouse with a bunch of nice ladies. But even that fantasy begins to make demands she can't bear -- having to perform, as all prostitutes have to -- so she nests another fantasy within that, that she's on a quest -- to be free. This quest to be free is the truth of the film, and it holds true through every level of her delusion.
To be free is a tall order, but a noble subject to put forth in art. In SUCKER PUNCH, Mr. Snyder starts his dialogue about all this with an archetypal conflict between innocent/naughty schoolgirl and psycho stepfather. The main character really is innocent/naughty, and having accidentally committed murder, she finds herself in an insane asylum, where she "meets" an assortment of girl runaways, Lolitas, Pussycat Dolls, and Britney Spears ("Baby One More Time") in varying disguises.
Typically when you see this type of stuff it's either the subject/object selling her wares as it were (i.e. watch almost any music video from the pop divas du jour). Or, more perversely, the person (the filmmaker/ director/ producer/ artist) who's showing us the subject/object then swiftly dispatches the subject/object and by so doing, makes her a victim: Just think of how many rapes, murders, and assaults on women you've seen in procedural dramas. My point is the pattern is either to watch someone "whoring themselves out" or to participate via entertainment in punishing her.
But Snyder doesn't do either, even as he uses the same visual cues. The entire direction of this film moves away from asking the audience to conspire in the destruction of the feminine. The narration says to Baby Doll instead,
This is extraordinary. Think of the typical slasher movie. The feminine character is left to cower in her hiding place or at best, to get away, if she's lucky enough and hasn't been caught having sex. And in action movies, the strong female is often ultra-male -- variations on Sigourney Weaver in ALIEN or Linda Hamilton in THE TERMINATOR being the template. It's as if to say to us that in order to be a legitimate heroic figure, women have to not be sexy. She's gotta be a man. But Snyder's film says, be you. Be sexy. Be whole.
The only people who aren't sexy in SUCKER PUNCH are those who long to control that which they are afraid to inhabit in themselves. A male orderly, who runs the place, for example, has a tear in his eye watching Baby Doll dance. He's moved by her, wants to possess her. But that's because he is lacking this Baby Doll quality in himself. As evidenced by his treatment of the inmates at the hospital, he's lost his innocence, vitality, goodness, scruples etc.
The antagonists are the least appealing versions of the masculine Snyder could dream up: e.g. a fat, ruby-nosed dimwit cook, the team of sad sadistic male nurses, as if to say to its prisoners, Look at these losers; you can beat them. But it's not quite this simple. This film is really about how the predatory characters are part of a wider delusion. Well, perhaps delusion's not quite the right word, everyone there is part of a wider canvas. Baby Doll created them, having created her entire world, the ultra-good, the ultra-bad, the indifferent, the helpful. She created it all because she is the author of her own life. As if to underline this point, the film even suggests that Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) - the "strongest" of the girls according to Baby Doll -- is really the main character, and that the whole time, this entire story has been about her. The film seems to be working through the idea that it's every individual's responsibility to reign in all parts of self in order to be whole. This is a notion people can have trouble coming to terms with because we often want to put someone else in charge or say it's some systemic problem for this and that. Where are the lines? How does one break free?
Now, if you want to take this literally that's OK, but I don't think that's the meaning. What Snyder means by fight is to have the self-esteem to know you are of value and that you (and by you I mean not only the characters in the film but also the audience viewing it) are in control of your life -- that everything in it you are the creator of. This is a very powerful message. The biggest and the least of us, we're all responsible for our lives.
Films are art and art is not perfect, but this was a helpful and healing message to attempt to communicate.