|Multiple personality disorder isn't normally this pretty. But that's one of the keys to this misunderstood art/action film.|
We've waded through a lot of hateful reviews of Sucker Punch, both on Twitter and from established film critics. And we have to admit that - thanks to misguided marketing - it really wasn't the movie we thought we were going to see.
In many ways, it was much better. That's not to say it was particularly fun to watch. It provoked intense emotional distress and disgust. But, ultimately, we connected with its message - something that most people seem to have missed amidst all of the bursts of machine gun fire and panty flashes.
|"If you're going to hate Sucker Punch, hate it because it's a pretentious art film - not a hollow action movie. Hate it for the right reasons."|
If you left the theater scratching your head, you were probably not in the right mindset to comprehend what was really going on. It took us some time and a couple of viewings to work it all out. And, honestly, we don't care if you love the movie as much as we've come to, appreciate it on its merits or continue to revile it. But if you're going to hate Sucker Punch, hate it because it's a pretentious art film - not a hollow action movie. Hate it for the right reasons.
And if you are going to give it a fair shot, don't go in with the expectation that it's a special effects thrill ride full of hot chicks doing racy stuff to make you and your paramour get all hot and happy. This is not a sexy date night film, or even a slinky action flick. You will not enjoy it because there is no real joy in it. It's an artistic statement - a deep, dark and visually stunning diatribe if you will - about abuse and its effects on women. See it if you want to have meaningful discussions afterward, but don't expect it to induce a wild night of romance.
Consider this your guide to "getting" Sucker Punch. I'll keep the plot spoilers to the bare minimum while providing the context to understand and appreciate the message of the film and removing any biases you might have going in.
First off, the title Sucker Punch is deliberately ambiguous and really refers to how director/co-writer Zack Snyder wants you to feel after viewing the film. If you comprehend its full meaning as we did, you'll feel like you've been slammed in the solar plexus, which - at best - might leave you feeling intellectually stimulated (if not a little nauseous) as you grapple with its layers of connotation and message.
Many of the people who shared our most recent screening walked out discussing their love of the "awesome battles with zombie steampunk Nazis" or how "the action sequences were banal." You'll note the very polarized reactions, but the common denominator? Neither party in this discussion seemed to have a clue about what was really happening. Likewise, many reviewers have mistaken the fantasy action quests as a statement on female empowerment. This misses the point entirely.
|"Babydoll's view of the grungy hospital reminded us of BioShock 2, where a key character sees Rapture in a very idealized manner rather than the gruesome reality."|
Babydoll is a schizophrenic. Years of abuse by her stepfather have caused the 20-year-old woman to lose her grasp on reality. She goes to other places when reliving horrible, sometimes humiliating memories during public therapy sessions on stage at the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane. Our take is that the men are riveted to graphic descriptions of the stepfather's rape of her - just as they might be to an erotic dance, which is how Babydoll imagines it in her stylized bordello fantasy. This emotionally honest visualization gives her the necessary distance to share these painful moments in the real world of the asylum, just as these types of escapes may have helped her survive the acts themselves. Babydoll's stylized view of the grungy hospital reminded us of a similar sequence in BioShock 2, where a key character is shown to see the world of Rapture in a very idealized manner ("Look, an angel, Daddy!") rather than the gruesome reality.
In Babydoll's case, she views the patients' objectification for what it is: prostitution. People pay the orderly to have sex with the girls there, probably while they are heavily medicated. Shortly after her arrival, Babydoll envisions the asylum in slightly more palatable terms simply by seeing the truth of the place. While ostensibly there to help the girls, it's devolved through abuse of power and corruption to become essentially a brothel. As the doctor/Madam says to the orderly/Blue in Babydoll's fantasy, "I teach them to survive you."
But Babydoll isn't merely escaping. If you look at the clues planted in the beginning scenes, it's clear that years of abuse have driven her mad and then her deadly mistake pushed her over the edge, right into a psychotic break from reality. The pain of her memories is too much for her to face directly, so she slips off to another level where she battles her demons with all of the fragments of her personality on a journey to escape the pain of her existence.
That's right, I said Babydoll does all of the fighting. Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber and Blondie, all of the girls who assist her in her fantastical escapades? They are all the same girl. They're all Babydoll.
Obviously, the movie is open to interpretation, but that's our take on it - and the only one that really makes sense after the big denouement. All four girls who join Babydoll in both levels of her escapist realms are based on real people at the asylum. But they are not involved in her real world actions, though one does benefit if you take the doctor's word as truth at the end. Inside both the bordello and the battle scenes, the four ladies represent different aspects of Babydoll - her inner strength, her weakness, her protectiveness of her sister - and she uses them to work through her internal struggles as she acts out in the real world. Ever wonder how Blondie got her nickname when she's not even blonde? It's starting to make sense now, isn't it.
|"The talismans Babydoll collects to attain her freedom each symbolize a stage in the Kübler-Ross grief cycle."|
And here's the real key to the whole thing. The talismans Babydoll collects to attain her freedom each symbolize a stage in the Kübler-Ross grief cycle:
- Denial (Map)
- Anger (Fire)
- Bargaining (Knife)
- Depression (Key)
- Acceptance ("mystery item")
The Wise Man (played by Scott Glenn) lays it all out: "You will need 5 items for this journey... The fifth thing is a mystery, it is the reason, it is the goal. It will be a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory. Only you can find it, and if you do, it will set you free."
Oh, and if you're wondering, we believe The Wise Man represents a favorite uncle who no doubt spouted all sorts of little clichéd wisdoms at each holiday visit, such as this chestnut: "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything."
Director Zack Snyder has said that the movie was nearly taken away from him by Warner Brothers, and that he recut it himself to preserve what he could of its integrity while creating an edit that met the studio's criteria for release. This includes the more marketable PG-13 rating, though honestly even the current cut of the film should be an R. We saw a number of parents taking their very young kids to see Sucker Punch, probably expecting something more along the lines of Dragonheart than Hard Candy. To be fair, most of the movie's subtext sailed right over the heads of the adults in the audience, so it's doubtful the kids picked up on it. Still, the movie is intense and gruesome in places. I saw one child clutching his head and looking shell-shocked during a particularly difficult scene.
|"It's not pretty. It's not fun. You may not even like it. But that's not what Sucker Punch was meant to be."|
No doubt, all of these compromises designed to broaden Sucker Punch's audience muddled the movie and delivered poor word of mouth and ultimately a strong bias against the film by those who did decide to give it a try. Our hope is that the promised director's cut DVD - along with viewing on smaller screens, which will make it less immersive and easier to keep some analytical distance - may improve Sucker Punch's comprehensibility and help it find an audience that grasps its true purpose.
Our own second time with Sucker Punch was much more interesting because we were actively engaged in discerning its depths and meaning. But, again, it's not meant to be a fun film. Rather, it's perfect for late-night debates on the finer points of its interpretation and how it comments on the role of women in what remains a male-dominated, media-fueled, highly sexualized society.
Yeah, it's not pretty. It's not fun. You may not even like it. It's certainly not enjoyable. But that's not what Sucker Punch was meant to be. It's intended to hold a mirror to the ugliness that is abuse. In its compromised state it may not fully succeed, but it's still an interesting mess that you might find compelling. If you look at it right.