Sucker Punch (2011)

Director: Zack Snyder

By Roderick Heath

Zack Snyder is a bit of a handful. Each film he’s made has evinced a metastasising growth in ambition, technical skill, and inventive energy. The leap between 300 (2006), a glorified dimwit sword-and-sandal epic, painted over in cutting-edge digital terms, and the complex, maddening, occasionally brilliant Watchmen (2009), was remarkable. His sheer joy in using his camera is evolving into one of the most vigorous, yet coherent, thoroughly cinematic sensibilities popular American film has produced since Quentin Tarantino. What he lacks is Tarantino’s finite judgment of the disparity between his geeky peccadilloes and weightier matters. Snyder’s sensibility is one that is stupefied by its own way-cool imaginings, even as he delves into material that would make many directors pull up short and fret. Sucker Punch, his first work from original material, cowritten with Steve Shibuya, suggests a director slipping all his bonds and coming of age. So, of course, it met with a terribly hostile reaction, inviting a lot of hyperbolic, weirdly ignorant critical commentary. The same people who wet themselves over Christopher Nolan’s neutered con job Inception (2010) took pains to attack Snyder’s surprisingly dark, covertly camp, multifaceted, wildly off-kilter inner-space epic. Almost any adjective I can think of to describe Sucker Punch works even when they oppose each other: exhilarating, overlong, thrilling, tedious, brilliant, silly, deceptively serious, sexy, anti-erotic, cruel, and humane, jumping between genres with the same elastic preternatural power as its fantasy heroines.

Sucker Punch immediately suggests an uncommon filmic aspiration with an opening prologue that’s a virtual silent film. Snyder offers gargantuan visuals to depict a tale set in a mythically gothic 1950s of two doomed sisters caught in a house with a sleazy patriarch, revealed later to be a wicked stepfather (now there’s an inversion for you), who has murdered their mother and successfully passed it off as a ticket to possessing the two girls. Evoking D. W. Griffith by way of James Whale and Robert Aldrich, Snyder cuts between the stepfather’s (Gerard Plunkett) attempts to break in the door of the cupboard the younger sister (Frederique de Raucourt) has locked herself in with the obvious intent of molesting her. The elder sister (Emily Browning) escapes from the room she’s been locked in, finds a gun, and tries to shoot her stepfather—except that she’s not really made of killer stuff. Her wild shots kill her sister instead, and she can’t finish off the monster. Before the police can investigate fully, the stepfather has the remaining girl placed in an insane asylum and bribes an orderly, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), to make sure she’s lobotomised to ensure she never spills the beans on him.

Soon after, the narrative seems to move into another reality, one that still follows the basic parameters—rather than a nominal flunky Blue is the impresario-pimp in a nightclub-brothel where he and his thugs keep the dancers as prisoners and concubines, and the asylum’s chief psychiatrist, Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino, wielding an amusingly cheesy Slavic accent), is the club’s choreographer. They stage garishly spectacular, erotic gyrations for the rich men who frequent the club. Snyder follows with a montage that cuts between Blue and Vera singing Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug,” scenes from the other performances by the dancers, and vignettes depicting a tough guy entering the club, leaping in ecstasy in watching the performances, buying a roll with one of the girls, and then getting himself beaten up and hurled out after losing his cool in a poker match. The editing and camerawork in this sequence is worthy of Scorsese in one of the most electric bits of moviemaking I’ve seen in several years, a delirious sprawl of flying dollar bills, glasses being filled, huge make-up-plastered lips and eyes, and flashes of absurd dance routines in which Indian princesses, naughty nurses, and crucified angels excite the clientele.

Our heroine is given the sobriquet of Babydoll, whilst her fellows already have a variety of classically patronising noms de guerre: Sweet Pea (Abby Cornish) and her younger sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung), and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). Instead of facing the danger of a lobotomy, Blue is going to sell Babydoll’s virginity to a high-roller playboy. Babydoll pieces together a plan to escape that demands accumulating, in turn, a map of the club, something with which to light a fire, a knife for self-defence, and the master key Blue has hanging around his neck. Once it’s made clear to Babydoll that her life depends on her becoming another of the club’s quality performers, she reveals astounding dancing talents that can hypnotise any male.

But Snyder never actually shows us Babydoll’s dance. Instead, Snyder takes up the old cliché of the sad stripper who goes to “another place” whilst performing and does something original with it. Advised by Vera that her “fight for survival starts right now,” Babydoll dives into eruptive fantasy landscapes that can be seen as lying deep within the girls’ collective psychotic delusions, and also as elemental versions of that survival battle. Babydoll is recast as a leader of a squad composed of her fellow dancers outfitted as glamazon warriors who are given assignments and advice by a mysterious sensei (Scott Glenn), the most decent male character in the film. The heroines cut their wrathful, confident way through mechanical Samurai, zombie German soldiers in a steampunk WWI landscape, orcs and dragons in a medieval realm, and a train filled with killer robots and a ticking atomic bomb.

These vignettes represent each stage of Babydoll’s plan, capturing tokens of the items on her list like levels in a video game, and also crystallising the anxieties and strengths of the girls—especially the fearsomely protective relationship of Rocket and Sweet Pea evinced in their balletic ass-kicking, and the animus-slaying grit of Babydoll. Snyder does not try to attach these to any sort of MacGuffin-enabled surface reality—there are no experimental therapies or drug-induced alternate realities to give it a dash of scifi cred. The only sounding board in the wraparound story is the fact that Gorski tries to get the girls to act as therapy. It’s all a kind of souped-up version of a play thrown by teenage girls with costumes out of the prop basket, in a narrative mash-up collapsing boundaries between musicals and women’s melodramas, boy’s own pulp tales, psychodramas, and primal nightmares.

Sucker Punch is sustained by a clever dynamic as Snyder’s grrrl power is both celebrated and yet finally critiqued and mediated through these fantasies, which are simply imaginative reinventions of the girls’ real-life predicament in symbolic terms, suggesting that fantasising and image creation can be weapons in more urgent and real, yet emotionally linked, situations. Babydoll’s failure to save her sister and, indeed, tragic killing of her because of her incapacity to shoot her stepfather directly, is endlessly avenged with armies of inhuman villains, the pain of her reality mediated first by the imagined setting of the club/brothel and then in these absurdist battles. The film’s colossal sprawl of invocations and quotations seems both a by-product and a celebration of a fertile adolescent mind, and Snyder’s film acknowledges this on several levels, as well as being an icon of this in itself. Fairytales, surrealism, graphic novels, steampunk, science-fiction, war movies, musicals, samurai flicks, Paul Verhoeven-esque sexy-satiric pizzazz, and cyberspace interact with shameless, cross-pollinating energy. Sucker Punch is a film I’ve been waiting for to come out of the contemporary pop-cultural primordial soup for some time, to the evident dismay of many. It’s the sort of film that would be immediately ennobled as a niche masterpiece if it came from Japan.

It’s also a project that, in a much more vital fashion than the relatively shallow appropriation of such motifs by Avatar (2009), utilises the impulses and fetishes of online culture, with its easy facilitation of borrowed guises for projection of one’s inner self, that is becoming an increasingly ordinary part of our lives. Rather than simplistically suggest such things are sterile and distracting, Sucker Punch engages with them with an intuitive sense of both their pleasures and limitations. This is particularly and easily apparent in its heroines and their fantasy avatars resembling characters from Second Life or IMVU, defiantly sexual but never leered over, marching into battle like The Wild Bunch recast with manga-accented, lollipop-sucking scrubbers. This is blended in rich ways with oft-referenced classic fantasy tales like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, complete with the characters in one level of fantasy based on real-life analogues as in Baum’s story. Simultaneously, Snyder constructs a vision of a world that is soul-choking towards the victimised innocents, which Babydoll’s first-level fantasy reinterprets as fascistic and totally misogynist, if slightly more glamorous, and the second level subverts and reconstructs, repainting reality according to private whim. You might as well call it Celine and Julie Go Gaming. Yet there’s also a reflex within the film that contradicts this effort, as Babydoll’s laboured plan involves a series of deceptions, and her fantasies blind her to moments when these efforts go wrong, with tragic results. They are undone first by a foolish accident that none of them can predict, and then by betrayal through emotional weakness.

Babydoll’s dancing before the corpulent chef in the club (Malcolm Scott) so that they can steal a knife from him results in Rocket getting stabbed to death—in the fantasy, this becomes her heroic sacrifice of dying in the exploding train—and Blondie lets slip that something’s going on to an already suspicious Blue. The levels of the storytelling (if rendered in a far different style) recalled to my mind Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 (2004), especially in the train sequence, which suggests the subtle, emotional metaphors of Wong’s hero’s tales retranslated into myths of rampaging, survivalist warfare. But Snyder finally shows his hand and reveals Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) as a significant inspiration, apparent in both the structure and in a specific aspect of his narrative’s resolve, as a permanent retreat into a divorced and forgetful state on Babydoll’s part is offered as the last, tragic, yet grimly victorious end for a girl who fights to liberate not merely herself but someone, anyone, who deserves it. Sweet Pea, as she says, is the strongest, the most fiercely leonine of the girls, and the one best equipped to survive in the outside world. Babydoll finally offers herself up to the High Roller (John Hamm, in a splendidly sexy-sleazy cameo) to give Sweet Pea a chance to get away. Babydoll succumbs to the high roller’s seductive spiel that offers an end to all pain and evil memory if she gives herself up to his penetration—sexual seduction that equates with the obliterating drive of the lobotomy needle. In an age in which action blockbusters are often profoundly gutless, I can’t help but applaud one that goes this far.

Sucker Punch does have some flaws. The script doesn’t define Amber and Blondie well enough. The fantasy action scenes, whilst impressively staged and blissfully bizarre, are also repetitive and could have used a tighter integration into the structure of the tale. Cornish is uncharacteristically wooden, though she’s balanced in most of her scenes by the excellent Malone. I would have also liked a more fitting and integral real-life analogue for Glenn’s sensei, who proves merely to be a helpful bus conductor. Snyder utilises some rather bland covers of some classic trippy songs, like The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Although when Blue is hauled off to meet justice in the real world one can overhear him spilling the beans on the stepfather, I would still have liked to have seen that creep get his desserts. The moment in which Babydoll stabs Blue in the shoulder and his later real-world comeuppance are thankfully sweet. Isaac, who’s swiftly becoming one of my favourite actors, gives a consummately hammy performance as a hammy character, alternating from seedy hospital staff flunky turned abuser to moustachioed, lounge lizard bully and crooner. There’s a quality to the finale I can’t shake in its depiction of innocence prostrate before cruelty but beating it in dissociation, Hamm’s bewildered surgeon astounded by the result. Sucker Punch is a bracing and dazzling pop-art explosion that I predict will gain a serious cult following, and frankly I feel that if we as cinema fans can’t appreciate filmmaking like this, then we’re living in a sad and dolorous time indeed.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    28th/07/2011 to 5:39 pm

    Wow. I haven’t seen it so I have nothing else to say right now except this: Since every other review has been the polar opposite of this one, I might finally see it because of this one review.

    Is it horrible or worthwhile… we shall see.

    Oh, I’m sorry, did that sound too cryptic? Sometimes I forget not everyone knows I’m the final judge of these things. So anyway…

    … we shall see.

  • Rod spoke:
    28th/07/2011 to 10:14 pm

    Greg: not every review. I think Andrew O’Hehir came close to hitting it on the head when he said that it’s hardly flawless and yet Snyder seemed to be trying to create some sort of auteurist space for himself in the context of contemporary Hollywood action cinema. In any event this might be another one of those cases where I was the only person looking forward to a movie, a la Jennifer’s Body (although this is a much more successful movie than that). A lot of people seemed to have made up their attitude to this long before they saw it. Admittedly the ad campaign might have had something to do with that, gearing it towards randy teen boys, rather than fans of trippy adventure. What I saw was a movie that mashed together a lot of things I love about cinema, not original in its pieces and yet defiantly so in its wholeness. I’m not surprised it didn’t click, because a lot of things Snyder is drawing on were often met with bewildered hostility when they came out – like Brazil, like some of Paul Verhoeven’s films – even though they’re feted now.

  • StephenM spoke:
    28th/07/2011 to 11:06 pm

    This is the best defense of this film I’ve read. There were a few others out there, but most had a hard time making their cases. But yeah, everyone else hated it.

    I, on the other hand, quite liked it. It had some really gorgeous imagery and imaginative ideas, and this over-the-top, occasionally-but-mostly-just-deliriously-straight verve to it that I found irresistible, despite expecting to dislike it. Snyder has real talent, just, as you say, without enough judgment. If he manages to gain a little moral insight and lets someone else write the dialogue, I think he’s going to be someone to reckon with.

  • Rod spoke:
    29th/07/2011 to 11:24 am

    Thanks for the compliment for this piece, Stephen. Indeed, the film is hampered a bit by the mostly functional screenplay – happy thought if Snyder had been able to get Alan Moore to flesh out the idea for him – for, as I said, I would have liked better definition of the supporting characters. But I can’t say the writing bothered me greatly either.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    31st/07/2011 to 10:11 am

    Rod, I feel exactly the opposite. I found this mean-spirited and shallow, when it’s redundancy and tedium didn’t take hold. Yes, it’s a spectacular defense and a refreshing rebuke to the RT people, who rated this film with a 22%. I’d say in the history of Roderick Heath film criticism it may well be the grandest example of rallying behind a film that is this critically derided. In any case, I did only see the film once, and you have made some interesting observations that call out for a repeat. Some day.

  • Rod spoke:
    31st/07/2011 to 10:28 am

    Sam, I have a perverse habit of enjoying when I disagree with very large numbers of people. Perhaps I have an unrealised martyr fetish.

  • Adam spoke:
    25th/05/2012 to 6:38 am

    I emerged from the cinema laugfhing like a loon at the sheer audacity of Snyder’s vision. As you point out in your rather magnificent essay, the components are familiar but the combination is unique; a mental collage of Lord of the Rings, Dawn of the Dead, Sailor Moon and a hundred other disparate sources.

    Still, I was horrified when a close friend mentioned having seen the film in passing. Unimpressed by the volume of it all, he dismissed it as a film that, uniquely, ‘meant absolutely nothing’. I see it as is having the opposite problem; in any one frame Snyder’s trying to communicate ten different things at once! I also really don’t understand the people who see its ideology as oppressive or cruel, when it makes clear at every turn this is a story about oppression being overcome.

    The women who form Babydoll’s team are imprisoned and their vitality commoditized and coveted.

    They slip their bonds and risk it all to reclaim their agency; if those risks don’t pay off and they meet a bloody end, it only goes to show up the relentless brutality of their captors. Still the struggle continues.

    I live in hope that Sucker Punch’s time will come around.

  • Roderick spoke:
    28th/05/2012 to 4:03 am

    Adam, sorry it’s taken a while to respond but I’ve been mind-bendingly busy lately and comments on older posts have had to wait, and now all I can just say, “Damn well said”. Your friend who said it meant “absolutely nothing” parades an attitude that’s sadly all to pervasive in the way people respond to movies these days. Your own reference to Sailor Moon is splendid.

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