« go back
Friday, April 01, 2011
Movie Review: Sucker Punch
It's been a while since I've review a film here, probably because I can't find anything interesting to discuss about the films I see in this space. Last Friday, though, I went to see Sucker Punch, and I've got a lot of things to say about it! Or rather, I have a lot of things to say about a lot of the other things people are saying about it, that I don't understand. Aside from the fresh action sequences involving dragons, samurai with miniguns, WWI era clockwork Germans, and robots, Sucker Punch is probably the best movie about dissociation I've ever seen. This review features serious spoiler action - you've been warned.
The reason I find Sucker Punch so appropriate for this space is the clear focus of the film, and the film review world's inability to see it. The IMDB description of the movie is pretty clear: "A young girl is institutionalized by her abusive stepfather. Retreating to an alternative reality as a coping strategy, she envisions a plan which will help her escape from the mental facility." That's what the movie is about. There's not a lot of confusion here. If you could follow Inception, you can follow Sucker Punch. There are multiple levels to her coping, sure, but they are clearly indicated by a switch in music and palette. The movie gives viewers plenty of indication when we're moving between levels of fantasy here.
Let's back up, first, and get a slightly more comprehensive synopsis than the one sentence IMDB provides. Sucker Punch is set sometime in the 1960s, and focuses on the institutionalization of a young girl known to the audience as Baby Doll (Emily Browning). Baby Doll's mother dies at the beginning of the film, and she is left with her pedophile stepfather and younger sister. It's pretty clear from the opening segment of the film that he has assaulted or actually raped at least Baby Doll's younger sister, and has tried to assault her as well. During an attempt to fight back at one point, Baby Doll's stepfather kills her younger sister, and frames her for it. He brings her to a mental institution in Vermont where a corrupt orderly (Oscar Isaac) is taking bribes to have patients lobotomized to get them out of the way for rich family members. Baby Doll's stepfather stands to inherit her late mother's money, whatever amount it was, once the two girls are out of the picture.
Just to recap, then - in the first five to ten minutes of this film, the main character has gone through a series of major traumas: her mother is dead, her sister is dead, she's been assaulted and/or raped probably more than once, and now she's being institutionalized against her will for an action that she didn't commit. One of the major criticisms of the film from reviewers is that Emily Browning plays Baby Doll as a blank slate - she doesn't seem to emote much, or show reactions to the outside world. I didn't think it took substantial rape crisis training to recognize what shock looked like, but Browning's performance of a character, in MASSIVE shock, and who is quickly learning how to survive in an environment where she basically can't, was compelling. She doesn't talk much because she doesn't have a whole lot to say, and it's easier to play it off to the other characters that she's a blank than to actively engage with them.
The film has three layers: the real world (the institution in Vermont), the first level of fantasy escapism (a brothel), and the second level of escapism (the sepia-toned, trailer scenes of sailor-moon clad vixens shooting down airplanes). Salon's Andrew O'Hehir describes it like this: "I suppose it's clear enough that the loony-bin level of "Sucker Punch" is meant to be reality, and every subsequent shift in context -- up to and including the faux-medieval dragon-slaying and steampunk World War I cyborgs -- is a metaphorical attempt to escape from that reality. That is, it's accurate but inadequate; that's both taking the movie too literally and missing its point." I disagree - it's not clear enough that the various changes in scenery and mood are different levels of Baby Doll's psyche; it's just clear. The colors change. The music changes. Character's names change. The setting and time period changes. It is not ambiguous.
And here comes the part that I think most reviewers have either missed, or don't want to consider: this movie is all about a young woman being raped. We get pretty clear confirmation of this at the end of the film (spoiler again) when, in the real world, Isaac's orderly freaks out after some of his patients escape due to Baby Doll's schemes. Rape, sexual assault, and maltreatment at the hands of orderlies or other staff in mental institutions was dangerously common in the period before de-institutionalization in the U.S.; this is still the case for many women under state supervision in the U.S. now. Men, in a position of power over captive women, in an institutional setting in which those women have no voice or power, will rape.
The relationship between the real world that Baby Doll is experiencing and the first level of her fantasy is not hard for me to understand. In order to survive in this hellhole of an institution where she is being repeatedly abused and likely raped, and when she's already been traumatized by the events that led her to the institution in the first place, she choose to create a fantasy world for herself that is easier to deal with. This is where the bordello fantasy exists - it's Baby Doll's necessary emotional escape from the day-to-day existence in the institution. And it's not surprising, based on her situation in real life, that this world is hyper-sexualized; she is getting a huge amount of unwanted attention from men in the real world because of her gender. Her fantasy world helps her cope with reality, but it does reflect it to some degree as well - she's still a prisoner there, she's still exploited sexually there; her life is still about this nexus of rape and imprisonment, it's just got nicer drapes than the real world.
Over time in the real world, it becomes clear to Baby Doll that either because of her looks, or because of the personalities of the orderlies, that she is assaulted more than the other patients at the hospital. She also learns that she can manipulate the orderlies through their raping of her. This is where the second level of fantasy comes into play: she recognizes that her fellow inmates can get away with stealing things, sneaking around, and generally making good on attempts to escape if the guards' attentions are focusing on assaulting Baby Doll. In her mid-level fantasy, she views this as dancing - the sexualized act that will entrance the men who run her world. It's too hard for her brain, though, to face the idea that getting raped in the real world is a form of fighting back against her abusers, and so she creates another level of fantasy where she is completely in control as a violent commando. Still sexualized, because again, in real life - she's getting raped.
The action sequences themselves? I liked them, because I like ridiculous kung-fu inspired fights and giant samurai demons with miniguns. I think they look incredible, and the mash-ups of styles, ideas, and villains in them is both terrifying and impressive. It makes sense to me that the bad guys in any given version of Baby Doll's fantasy are inhuman monsters, because the men who are assaulting her in real life are also inhuman monsters. The fact that the imagery is clashing and strange makes some sense, too - this is dissociation, after all. BARCC hears from a lot of survivors that one self-defense mechanism that helped them make it through the trauma of being raped was to...go somewhere else; to let their emotional and mental self be somewhere distant, especially if that emotional place is one in which the survivor is in complete control. The reason Baby Doll is never in realistic danger during her slips into the commando fantasy world is because she's creating the entire universe to make herself feel safe. The only time that fantasy gets broken is when someone does legitimately die in the real world and shatters Baby Doll's ability to dissociate for a moment.
None of these things were particularly hard for me to understand or to see. Reviewers who didn't see any connection between the various levels of trauma and fantasy in this movie either didn't watch it very closely, or they were uncomfortable facing the idea that this is a movie about a young, innocent-looking girl getting raped repeatedly by everyone who has the job to protect her and take care of her. I'm not so surprised by that, either, although I am a little surprised that I haven't seen more discussion about sexual assault in ANY review of the movie I've seen so far. We do a terrible job in the mass media world of discussing the effects of things like trauma on someone's psyche, and for folks who haven't gone through a 40 hour training on what it looks like, perhaps it's a lot harder to see. I didn't think it was, but this could be a strong opportunity for violence prevention specialists activists like me to help shatter some pre-conceived notions. If we want a good indication of what dissociation looks like, of what one coping mechanism for surviving trauma has been, we can point to Sucker Punch as one of our few examples of major media products that give it fair treatment.
Posted by Dave
on 04/01 at 03:00 PM
Posted by Angelo on 04/01 at 05:02 PM
This is the best review I've seen. From reviews loving the movie because of the action sequences and people hating it for its high sexuality - I was hoping for something more. Thanks for writing and posting!
Posted by Jacob on 04/02 at 12:30 AM
Thank you for such an honest review. I am curious either to the writer, or others who have seen the movie, is there anything potentially triggering to survivors? I'd really like to see it but have been hesitant because of the subject matter. Thanks.
Posted by Cat on 04/03 at 02:30 PM
I think the primary problem with your review is that you seem to assume the worst in every reviewer. Judging by the reviews, it seems that most would have preferred something truly empowering and/or humanizing, but for them, Zack Snyder got carried away with fetishization and confused sexual titillation with indictment instead of truly dealing with the problems of sexual abuse and rape. It's so easy to say that the fantasy action sequences are metaphors for Babydoll's retreat and that all who fail to grasp that are somehow oblivious to the obvious. Well, let me break it to you. Movies are polysemous texts. You read something into it because of your experience, whereas maybe someone who is more concerned with critical media theory and issues of gender politics and heteronormativity may very well criticize the film for its portrayal of hypersexualized, supermodel-esque women. In fact, they may read your review and assume, "Wow, this oblivious individual somehow thinks these images are okay! Does this reviewer honestly believe that the upskirt shots and abundance of cleavage are part of her mental retreat? Do they not know that this was written and directed by a man? Maybe if they spent more time around issues of media literacy or read some of the foundational texts on gender and representation, they would see the film for what it really is." Who are you to say that they are wrong or somehow insensitive? Who are you to assume they don't care about issues of abuse when they fault the film for disseminating the very hypersexualized images and depthless female characters that maintain gender inequality in media?
Posted by Max on 04/03 at 03:06 PM
I totally agree with this review; I was struck by how the multiple layers of narrative dealt with Baby Doll's experience of trauma and abuse.
One point I think commenter Max missed is that women are so sexualized in the mainstream Western media that I don't think one could attempt to tell a story--any story, and especially a story about an unpleasant and socially unacceptable topic like rape--without sexualizing the women to at least some degree. Here I'd point to Laura Mulvey's groundbreaking scholarship on the male gaze in Western cinema.
Anyway, while the various narrative levels offered different degrees of empowerment for the female characters, I think Dave's review is spot-on, and I'm considering linking to it if I get a chance to review the movie for the Kinsey-Institute-affiliated blog for which I wrote, mysexprofessor.com
Posted by Jeana on 04/03 at 09:41 PM
LOVE this review and totally agree with it! I was surprised by reviews that found the movie itself objectifying to women and girls when, instead of showing Baby Doll dancing provocatively, the film consistently opts to show her fighting.
Posted by Jen on 04/04 at 11:04 AM
thank you for this. even feminist bloggers i respected have been telling me i'm a bad rape victim for loving and identifying with this movie. knowing someone else saw what i did in it helps me feel less like i'm alone in the twilight zone.
Posted by abby on 04/04 at 11:09 AM
I thought that Baby Doll kills her sister accidentally: when she shoots the gun, it misses her stepfather and hits her sister where she's cowering in the closet behind him. Besides the death of her mother and her abuse at her hands of her stepfather (I don't think her little sister had been touched previously), her accidental murder of her sister is that last, big hit that sends her into a disassociative break.
There seems to be a conflict in what the movie is said to be about, and what the movie-as-text seems to be about: whose fantasy is it? Sweet Pea's final escape scene and the closing voice over of the film are provided by Sweet Pea, who delivers a rambling set of questions about who tells our stories and so forth. She also encounters the young boy who she ostensibly noticed earlier in the WWII trenches and the "angel" who guided them through her missions: instead of being real life echoing the earlier fantasies, perhaps these encounters shaped HER retrospective invention of the narrative.
I didn't find anything empowering about this narrative - it just seemed to reassert what I already know about how women are objectified and brutalized in rape culture. Baby Doll is still victimized and lobotomized at the end. She helps a fellow inmate escape, which is a positive, but we can't take what happens after her escape at face value unless we're assuming Sweet Pea is narrating the story. (In which case that changes the entire interpretation of Baby Doll's story, and how IT ends.) And the other inmates are not real in any true sense, because we haven't had true base-level confirmation they're real... and, if they are, they've apparently submitted to becoming non-entities as represented by their deaths in the bordello level.
It's a very uncomfortable and provocative film. I liked it better before I listened to Zack Snyder and the cast talking about it, and how much they emphasized how empowering for women the film is. I'm certainly not saying there aren't women who may find the film empowering, but I am stating that it can't be categorically represented as an empowering film. It just left me feeling incredibly sad that all their fighting got them essentially nowhere.
Of course, one woman's life was saved. Maybe that is enough. (But it shouldn't be. We should get so much more than one woman's life being saved, one woman's torture ended.)
Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful review!
Posted by Deborah J. Brannon on 04/04 at 11:39 AM
@Deborah, I haven't seen anything from Snyder myself; perhaps that would change my assumptions about his thoughts on the purpose of the film. I'm also not sure what I think about this film being 'empowering' at all; I can't quite get myself to that way of thinking yet, for a lot of the reasons you stipulated. I think the movie has more levels than a lot of viewers thought upon first glance, but I don't think this is supposed to be any sort of uplifting story about the power of women. I think it's actually about how shitty the situation is for them, and how the mechanisms for fighting back against that system (in the context of the institution) are basically limited to death or lobotomy.
I've also heard from a couple other people now that they think Baby Doll killed her sister accidentally. I hadn't seen that myself, but it certainly changes the type of trauma she's experienced.
My roommate brought up the interesting question of whether this is all Sweet Pea's fantasy/coping mechanism instead of Baby Doll's, and what that would mean for the tone/meaning/messages. To be honest, I don't even know.
Posted by Dave on 04/04 at 12:07 PM
I guess the problem I'm having with this review is that it necessitates the viewer to have the knowledge of what dissociation is and how it works for rape survivors in order for the movie to be viewed positively. I don't, and my reaction to reading the negative reviews has been, "She's being raped, and her fantasy escape is to a brothel, and then later to fighting fantasy creatures while wearing little girl fetish clothing? Wow, way to make rape sexy. Jerk."
Is there any text in the film to tell people who are there simply for the titillation factor that this is therapeutic escape and not just T&A;for the viewer's pleasure? I'm guessing no, since this is the only review I've read that addresses this point. It's making it difficult for me to give Snyder credit for doing this deliberately.
Posted by Jennifer Pelland on 04/04 at 01:22 PM
Jeana, I didn't miss anything. Look at the last sentence of my first comment. I'm very familiar with Mulvey's work (I assume you're talking specifically about Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema), but if you're using that in an attempt to somehow defend the film, I think you're making a mistake. As outdated as her concepts are (particularly her reliance on the patriarchy of Freud and Lacan's brand of psychoanalysis), I would argue that Sucker Punch fits right in with what she argues. Women in the film are not just sexualized for the pleasure of male audiences, they are hypersexualized and fetishized. This film's definition of female empowerment is skimpy outfits and big guns. I challenge anyone to ascribe the plethora of upskirt shots, cleavage, and cosplay wear to some sort of dissociation without even entertaining the fact that Snyder and his cast saw this film as a statement of empowerment.
Posted by Max on 04/04 at 02:10 PM
Good analysis! I do think you're asserting a lot of things as factual that the film deliberately left ambiguous (such as who killed the younger sister, or the extent of the abuse Baby Doll suffered). But your constructed narrative is certainly consistent with the film.
Posted by Rowyn on 04/04 at 02:44 PM
> Men, in a position of power over captive women, in an institutional setting in which those women have no voice or power, will rape.
I take issue with this in that it seems to state "Under these conditions, men will deterministically rape." In so denying their free will, it absolves men of moral responsibility.
Compare with the unacceptable notion of men being unable to control themselves
when a woman is dressed provocatively.
Posted by Andrew M. Farrell on 04/05 at 12:17 AM
I think another interesting thing is Baby Doll's version of a brothel is the one in the movie, which seems more like a sexy dance studio instead of a sleazy whorehouse. It's inaccurate because she actually doesn't know what one would look like. It's her idea of one.
Posted by Albert on 04/05 at 03:25 AM
I think, while the review is great, you're missing another level. The fact that the "fight scene escapism" is shown in full fanboy fantasy is completely on purpose. The escapes, whether she's thinking about fighting zombies and orcs, or running through a field of daisies, is purposely titillating to the audience as a judgement. In other words, it is presented as a guilty pleasure for the audience. We are being distracted just as the orderlies in the institution are being distracted.
You have tons of anime, female iconic superheroines, and female assassins depicted in sexually charged media, yet we, the audience are disgusted by young instutionalized girls being raped.
Is it really a coincidence that we enjoy the scantily clad heroine in heart pounding action while we lobotomize their true character?
Posted by Brad on 04/05 at 12:06 PM
Why is it that so many men talk about the 'scantily clad' females in the movie, or media in general?
I am a woman. If anybody should be offended by it, it's me, right? What's wrong with women being sexy? Why do we have to be androgynous to be feminist? I call BS.
With that being said, this review has completely changed my perception of the movie and made me enjoy it so much more.
Posted by Danyelle on 04/05 at 01:57 PM
Danyelle -- a woman can be sexy while still dressing practically for battle. In fact, some of us women find that much sexier-looking than lingerie and little girl sailor suits. Give me Faith from Buffy in her tank top, jeans, and boots over Sailor Moon any day! Yum!
Posted by Jennifer Pelland on 04/05 at 02:01 PM
Best review of Sucker Punch yes. One thing that has been missing from most critiques is that the action sequences are "our" collective fantasy. This is how we deal it. This is what "we" want to see. Notice how it makes you feel about every other scantily clad female action hero now? That was the point.
Posted by Todd Ireland on 04/05 at 03:39 PM
I guess you do have to have some idea what disassociation is to like this movie.
Perhaps if he had jumped back to the real world when the one girl was killed and showed babydoll in the asylum's uniform, more of the audience would have understood what she was doing.
Posted by Bob on 04/06 at 01:47 AM
Nice review. Could have swear I did not view the movie this way(Might have been way too tired) Thank you for clearing my doubts.
Posted by Ryan on 04/09 at 09:31 AM
I've read that in order not to have this film released with an R rating in the US, up to half an hour worth of scenes were cut out, including 'rape' scenes, and an intimate scene between Baby Doll and the High Roller. Apparently they will be shown in the full DVD release, and I think that may take some of the ambiguity out of the question for some viewers.
Also, it's interesting to notice how people fail to mention the context of the film, or even if the setting of the institution is mentioned, the time period seems to be irrelevant. We are viewing purposely filmed patriarchal views from a patriarchal time, before women were even allowed to vote in some countries. Even as a contemporary film, it is looking back and commenting on views from the past. I think that should be kept in mind. Much the same way we don't view proper 'historical' or 'period' films that include similar issues with such contemporary attitudes of disgust.
Posted by Charlotte on 04/10 at 09:08 PM
I didn't like it at all...but maybe I should give it another try. I didn't know it was about dissociation. Must be scary to experience that in real life because I had to leave the film!
Posted by Lisa on 04/11 at 10:38 AM
Thank you for your informed and thoughtful review. It is really a pleasure to read the thoughts of someone who has such a solid understanding of this film. I have some disagreements, e.g. I think BabyDoll was in an environment where rape was an ever present threat, not that she had been repeatedly raped, though the latter is possible.
Her initial traumas were bad enough to explain the dissociation.. Over a very short period losing her mother, her sister (whom she accidently shot -- I think there was no ambiguity in that) and being utterly betrayed by her stepfather (why would her mother marry such a man? Alas, such things do happen). The concept of dissociation explains her subsequent reactions very well.
The reviewers on the whole did just a terrible job, though there is a lot going on here, maybe too much for them. They may have been so blinded by their preconceptions (i.e. marketing) that they couldn't adjust when something very different unfolded before them. Sucker Punch makes sense but if the viewer doesn't have the interest or the desire to follow, yes, they will miss out. I certainly had no idea what the movie was about when I went to see it (unlike Inception, where the ads made it clear). When I went to see the film, it was mostly out of curiosity. The reviews were terrible, so much so, I wondered what had happened? I had liked and respected Snyder's other films, why was this one so hated? I was ready to bolt the theater, but instead fell in love with the film. Probably "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which I greatly admired (the book anyway) was a big help in quickly re-orienting myself as to what was actually going on.
Finally, I've seen the film four times now,and honestly did not see the film as exploitive or sexist or anything like that. It seemed possible to me that BabyDoll could be sexually exploited and feel in constant danger -- she was -- and yet want to express her sexuality as a means to (inner) freedom. I honestly saw no contradiction.
Note: while Snyder did an extraordinary job as writer and director, I have found his comments on the film to be mostly unhelpful. I honestly wonder if he appreciates/understands what he has accomplished in Sucker Punch. It truly is an amazing work, one in which the art has likely transcended the artist. I intend that as a very high compliment.
Posted by JohnQ on 04/17 at 11:01 PM
Let's test the whole BD / Dancing / sexual assault assumption for BD. It is this assumption that kind of darkens the whole thing beyond a Greek tragedy / One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest scenario.
There appears to be assaults going on in the A World per the guards comments to 'Blue' at the end.
B World is a bordello not a circus so sex seems to be involved.
BD looks kind of *how to put it* disheveled at the end of her dances and SP criticizes BDs gyrations.
The dances are clearly designed to *occupy* the guards/wardens while thievery goes on.
Baby Doll is clearly a special case in B world and therefore presumably in A world as well. She is protected as an economic asset in both (awaiting the high roller). In B world this precludes any sex or violence - until Blue snaps and gets stabbed. There is no reason why this circumstance wouldn't be directly mapped into A and seems to be the movie's antidote to the darker interpretation.
In the A world Blue proceeds with indecent haste to attempt sex with BD once the high roller / doctor has done his deed. Flowing from the 'playing with my toys' scene this suggests the release of pent up frustration and is consistent with the above paragraph. This is re-enforced by Blue's anger that BD is no longer mentally there to be consciously 'taken.'
Blues possessiveness and interest in BD is entirely inconsistent with BD being taken by other random guards or allowing herself up.
Sex in the Bordello is clearly separated from the dancing � note Rocket's tour distinguishing the dancing/theater from the backrooms. There is no direct metaphor in use. It would have made more sense for the club to be purely 'dancing' and not a dance hall / brothel combo.
In short the movie presents relatively hard evidence against the Blue/random guard BD rape scenario while viewers have to make assumptions with no direct corroboration to support the rape contention � even if this conclusion 'feels right', or provides a dark but seductive edge.
To be honest I would 'prefer' the assault scenario purely because the movie would then be unbearably, uniquely and overwhelmingly dark. However I can only do this by dismissing explicit elements in the film
Of course the question arises what was BD doing in the A world that was interpreted as dancing in B? There is not enough evidence provided so I think you can make up whatever you want **as long as it is consistent with the other data provided**. Personally I think it has to be some variation of feminine guile (short of rape). I don't think this was a major theme though, there is more than enough with self-determination, sacrifice, different forms of escape etc.
Posted by Bob on 04/27 at 11:46 PM
Bob: thank you for our comments. My thoughts regarding Sucker Punch continue to evolve and I found that your piece helped greatly to clarify my thinking. I think our positions are quite close. I believe that whatever the interpretation(s) of this remarkable film, and there are no doubt many, Sucker Punch will be seen as
Posted by JohnQ on 05/04 at 12:08 AM
Add your comment: