Art is subjective. That’s the saying anyway. But we have all experienced that time when we saw something, a film or a television show or read a book or, taking it to the most literal level, seen a painting that we had an instant gut reaction to. In almost every case, we felt that our instant reaction was the only proper way to see the thing we just saw.
Art is subjective.
As we filed out of the theater I casually queried those around me as to their first reactions and it was one of the few times in my life when it seemed the views were already set in stone, even as the projector was cooling.
Some people absolutely hated it. Not a casual hate either, but a hot hate. It was as if the film had personally reached out and kicked them in the shins and they were angry.
Others loved the film. They were completely in love with the film in a way that usually takes months if not years to achieve.
I know you’re sitting there at your computer wondering where exactly do I come down on the film. At least I hope you are. You may have stopped reading by now and clicked to something else on the site, but I’m going to operate on the assumption that you haven’t.
If it seems like I’m stalling, it’s because I kind of am. I don’t know exactly where I fall on the film.
As the final Wizard of Oz inspired shot faded to black and Director Zack Snyder’s name came up, I leaned over to the person beside me and said that that was either the greatest thing I’ve ever seen or possibly the worst.
Maybe both at once.
The one thing I believe is either the complete embrace of the film or the total rejection of the film is valid but also unfair.
Okay, enough with the preamble. In order to fully go into the film and its faults and virtues, I’m going to have to go into details about all aspects of the story. In most films this isn’t necessary, but given the convoluted nature of this film, it requires it.
That being said, everything that comes after this carries a heavy spoiler warning.
If you DO NOT wish to read about third act resolutions and scene specific details about the film, STOP READING NOW!
You’ve been warned.
Still with me?
Good. Let’s continue.
Rather than go through the film in order, I’ll give you the good and the bad by themselves and then, my final thoughts.
The good: Sucker Punch is Zack Snyder’s “kitchen sink” film. Some are calling it his proper payback by the studio for the out of the box success of 300 a few years back. Yes, his follow up to that was Watchmen, also a love it or hate it film for many, but like it or hate it, it essentially WAS the comic book, some would say slavishly so. And being so slavish to its source material was, I feel, something of Zack Snyder’s more wild tendencies were reigned in. Whether this is a good thing or bad depends on your tolerance for him.
Mine is pretty high.
Somewhere along the line, the words “Visual Artist” became a bad thing. When people say of a director, “Oh he’s a visual artist” it became akin to damning with faint praise. I’m not sure what that means. Well, no, I know what it means but I don’t agree. What they are saying is “He knows how to stage action, he knows how to tell a story with pictures, but he’s not good with characters or dialog”.
While some of these things may be true, film IS a visual medium. I’ve seen enough low budget films with a static camera filming endless self involved conversations featuring bland and pretty people blathering on about their problems and their lives that I can appreciate someone who can paint a picture with the camera that requires no dialog.
Generally speaking, no one ever says “wow, that guy knows character and dialog and how to put a story together, but he couldn’t stage an action scene to save his life” well, they have said that about Christopher Nolan but I think Inception put that argument to bed for good.
My point is this: Films like Sucker Punch don’t just fall out of the camera by themselves and they are not just the result of an effects department going above and beyond the call either. They are the result of a director who knows exactly what he wants and how he wants it done.
Now, you’re appreciation of what you see on screen is up to you, but it can’t be dismissed as the work of a hack.
As I said, Sucker Punch is his ‘kitchen sink’ film, which is the one film where he can toss in every stray idea he’s ever had into one film.
I can imagine a conversation like this: “You know what would be cool? A battle devastated wasteland circa World War 1 with fallen German soldiers brought back to life with steam and alchemy and then put them into a mega swords and gun battle…that would be SO cool.”
Now, the amount of narrative gymnastics that would have to be undertaken to make that work in a normal story would crumble under its own weight. So, he just inserted it as a fantasy sequence in the middle of this film.
The film is full of that. Sequences that feel ripped from other half formed ideas and concepts are given life in glorious living color inside the disassociated mind of our unreliable narrator, Baby Doll.
This brings me to Baby Doll. A film like Sucker Punch can be enjoyed (or not) for the visual spectacle that is unfolding on screen but it can also be fun to dig a little deeper into the story and see what clues are there to find.
The story follows Baby Doll from her mother’s death and her own accidental shooting of her little sister to being held inside a nightmarish mental institution and readied for a lobotomy to get her out of the way of her greedy and perverted step father. Once inside, she plans her escape with the help of four fellow inmates, three willingly and one seemingly against her will.
Almost immediately after she is inside, she descends to the first stage of her disassociation and the world of the asylum becomes a high end burlesque and prostitution house in which the inmates, now seemingly reduced to just our five central characters, dance and put on shows for the clients who come to be entertained. Once Baby Doll is forced to actually dance, encouraged by the kindly madam/Doctor Gorski, played with a weird Polish accent by the lovely Carla Gugino, any male in her presence during the dance becomes immobile for the duration of the dance. During her first dance, she descends into a second level of dissociation where she meets the unnamed wise man, played by Scott Glenn who tells her she must gather five items for her escape: a map, a key, fire, a knife and a fifth mystery item that will come into play in last act.
(One brief word about Scott Glenn, I think that he would have been the perfect casting choice for Roland of Gilead in The Dark Tower films. The man just bleeds coolness all over the screen.)
The bulk of the story then centers on Baby Doll dancing and dropping into this lower level of reality/fantasy and retrieving each of the items. This is in the guise of a mission with the other four girls and being briefed but not led into battle by their commanding officer, also played by Scott Glenn.
While these fantasy missions are happening, the girls are taking the items needed from the immobile males on the first level of the dissociation.
This brings us to the bad. The bad news is that it plays at times just as confusing as what you’ve just read. The narrative is disjointed and fragmented.
I don’t know if this story could be told in any other way though. You see, to fully engage with Sucker Punch, you must meet it on its own terms. This is the story about a girl who has suffered unseen abuse and lost her mother to an unnamed disease and her little sister to her own hand, albeit by accident.
By the time she arrives at the institution, she has snapped from reality. Everything we see afterwards, we see through her eyes. This girl has completely disconnected from the real world and has for all intents, lost her mind.
This is where my theories come into play. I think that the Scott Glenn character is her inner id. Her soul if you will. The inner part of her that is trying to get back. Back to sanity. Back to the real world. Her inner id is putting together a half thought out plan of escape and in her fever dreams of insanity, her mind is building these elaborate landscapes in which she must fight the demons of her own fractured mind in order to achieve her goals.
I believe we get out of films what we bring into them and I may be bringing a lot more with me than you are willing to take, and that’s where the subjective part of the art comes into play.
I will say that while I went into the film expecting to really dislike it, I wasn’t prepared for my actual reaction, which is to almost love it.
I say almost because it’s not perfect. It’s actually several exits up from perfect. The narrative is a mess. Whether it’s supposed to be given that we are in the hands of an unreliable narrator is beside the point. I guess it’s just hard to get from point A to point B when the bus is being driven by a crazy person.
I also have to temper my praise because of the classic third act problems in films like this. And this one is a doozy. After following Baby Doll for about a hundred minutes, not only is three-fifths of the main cast just taken out of play, but it is revealed that this is not our narrators story, but another girls.
If I had to guess, I would say this was the breaking point for a lot of people. If even knocked me back on my heels a bit and I was actually expecting something like that to happen. It feels tacked on to tie everything up in a neat bow that goes against the mayhem of everything we’ve seen before.
Some have said that the film hammers home the fact that men are bad over and over from the first frame to the last. I agree and disagree with this. I do think the film is hammering that home but I also think that it’s more complicated than that. I think the film is saying that for the young and helpless, all authority figures are to be feared. There is no safety in anything but each other. The film is saying that only the damaged can truly understand and help the damaged. Even the one maternal female figure, played by Carla Gugino, ends up betraying the girls in the end even if it is by accident.
The film also shows the feared High Roller, played by Don Draper himself; Jon Hamm is actually a somewhat caring and honest doctor in reality, if not in Baby Doll’s fevered nightmare.
So we are left to wonder what, if anything actually happened in the reality of this world? Did Blondie and Amber simply decide not to continue with the escape and therefore cease to exist in Baby’s mind or did they actually die at the hands of the nefarious Blue?
These are answers that only Zack Snyder can answer and until the inevitable director’s cut commentary they will remain unanswered. Perhaps even then.
I will leave you with these thoughts and you can take them however you like. I was moved to tears four times in this film. I was moved by the sheer poetry of what I was seeing on screen. I’ve never seen anything quite like Sucker Punch.
There are narrative problems, there are gaps in logic and some of the dialog is clunky, but in a waste land of sequels and remakes (Arthur? REALLY??) Where there are asinine chipmunk films and Yogi Bear movies and yet another Big Momma’s House abortion playing at the multi-plex, the specter of seeing something completely original warms my heart.
Sometimes that’s enough.
But again, art is subjective.
As I write this, I realize that I know my feelings on the film now. It’s like that shaggy; half breed dog that you can’t really get a lock on. All you know is, it’s pretty and you love it.
Sucker Punch: I love it, fleas and all.
On a scale of 1-5, I give it a solid 4
*I feel it only fair to add that I am a lifelong fan of alternate history stories, parallel universe stories and I count Inception as my favorite film from last year.
That may give you some idea as to why I was more willing to go with this film than others might be.