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.