Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Review and Defense of Sucker Punch

A defense of Sucker Punch? Really? How could anyone defend that movie? Critics have lambasted the movie as being all about sexual provocation and/or having a confusing or incoherent plot. As for the critics who said the former, I have to question their qualifications to be movie critics. If anything the point of the movie is the opposite. As for the charge of incoherence, this is a bit more understandable, but if you're willing to think hard and pull away the layers of the movie, a stunning coherence and plot emerge. Here I have to give credit to my friend Heath, with whom I attended the movie. I initially thought it was incoherent too, until he forced me to think it through.

Before you write me off, let me say this too. I am not a Snyder fanboy. I've never seen one of his movies before. I've never written a move review before and my never again, but the pure injustice of the reviews of this movie force me to write in defense of Snyder and this movie. Not only is this film not bad, from a technical standpoint it's one of the best films I've seen in some time.

Before I spoil the plot, let me urge you to see it, in the theater (preferably in IMAX). The way the scenes are shot is critical to understanding the story, and to get the full effect you have to see it on the big screen. The other key to the movie is seeing parallelism. There are four sets of parallel characters. If you don't see that, you can't understand the plot. As an aside, I think that interpreting this movie is a wonderful, fun exercise of exegesis.

SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!! Please don't read further if you intend to see the movie and haven't yet done so. It will completely ruin your experience. Just take my word that it's worthwhile and go watch it then come back and read.

The title Sucker Punch is a spoiler. The movie is a sucker punch in at least three different ways. First, early on the movie seems to be all about the display of the female anatomy. From about ten minutes on until about the halfway mark of the movie, almost every shot in the movie except the action sequences is framed in a way to showcase a girl in the foreground or background. The early action scenes also showcase the girls, primarily Baby Doll, on several occasions, especially noting the fact that she's wearing high heels in her fights. Thus the movie is setting you up to 'enjoy' the skin. As the movie progresses, however. You begin to understand that these girls are being sexually exploited (one character claims to own them) and treated like objects and you start to feel bad for them. Also, as Baby Doll feels more and more empowered, the sexual nature of the scenes dramatically diminishes. Here's the first Sucker Punch. You're intended to enjoy the eye candy (isn't the movie marketed as being eye candy?), only to be chastised for treating the girls like objects and placing you in the position of the abusers. Next we will see how the storyline en toto provides not one, but two additional sucker punches.

The seeming basic plot of the movie is that there is a young girl, who we know as Baby Doll whose mother dies and was sexually abused by her step-dad, and in her grief attempts to kill her step-dad, but ends up killing her sister. She's put into a mental institution where she has a series of fantasies through which she ends up being able to liberate a friend, named Sweet Pea. The Sucker Punch at this level is that Baby Doll whom you've fallen in love with doesn't get freed, but gets lobotomized, though in the process she exposes the pervasive sexual and physical abuse of the mental institution. Sweet Pea, whom you like the least of the protagonists because she resists the plan to escape, goes free. The movie ends with a black screen and a voice-over talking about our ability and need to create our own reality when reality sucks. This is a sucker punch and makes you leave the movie theater not only rebuked, but jilted. You didn't even get a happy ending.

Everything I wrote above is wrong. That's not the plot at all. Except for the voice-over at the end. You've been Sucker Punched a third time. This review is already quite long so I won't go into the full details, which are difficult to pick apart anyways (and I want to leave some fun for you). Instead I will provide the framework for understanding the movie.

Baby Doll doesn't exist. There was no sexually abusive step-father. In fact, I don't believe that a single scene in the movie accurately represents reality. The closest is the first scene in the 'theater' where Baby Doll's father 'sells' her to the orderly and we learn that Dr. Gorsky uses unusual methods to treat her patients, but tellingly, Baby Doll won't be treated by her. The movie is about her letting go of her painful reality in the mental institution. Baby Doll is an idealized projection of Sweet Pea's self. In that scene Dr. Gorsky is treating Sweet Pea. Part of the treatment is to convince Sweet Pea that the treatment itself isn't happening. The entire fake plot of the movie is a construct of Dr. Gorsky to help Sweet Pea escape her misery and willingly go to her lobotomy. The lobotomy scene and what follows is a projection of Sweet Pea's imagination. Dr. Gorsky did order it, even though Sweet Pea believes otherwise. The sexual abuse is not exposed, but, Sweet Pea is free and happy in her new reality.

While this isn't a totally satisfying message in my opinion, I do think that Snyder was very effective in getting it across if you're willing to stop and think about the movie. When you review any book or work of art you always need to ask, did the author succeed in what they were attempting to accomplish? The answer here is a resounding yes. The direction and cinematography are exquisite. They tell the story more than the plot does. The music, especially the choice of Sweet Dreams in the opening scene (I can't shake the eeriness of the song and scene, now three days removed from seeing the movie) also aids in the comprehension of the story. The point of the movie is the perlocutionary effect, and oh what an effect it has!

3 comments:

  1. I don't know that I liked it, but I certainly didn't hate it.

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  2. This is the best film ever. No doubt. What it surprises me is the date of your post! March 29, 2011!! I have looked the whole internet to look for answers after seeing the film like three times. And you had the answer 4 days after the release!! My accomplishments! But why does Snyder never comment this view of babydoll not existing?

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    Replies
    1. Thank for your comments. I spent a lot of time talking this over with my friend those first few days after seeing it.

      I haven't really followed anything Snyder has said about the reception of his film, so I'm not totally certain why he hasn't commented on that. I can say that it's not uncommon for artists generally to avoid making too strong of a statement about how we are to understand their art, and I think that's because after the art is released they no longer completely control the meaning and interpretation. We are co-participants in the art once we engage it. Giving too much guidance on how to interpret things kills that creative enjoyment of the art.

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