From the very first frames of the film, “Sucker Punch” rejects reality. There is a naked theatricality to the staging of the first few images, and then writer/director Zack Snyder drops us into the worst night in the young life of Baby Doll (Emily Browning). It’s a specific decision, as is practically everything in every frame of the film, and it’s one of many choices where I think Snyder the writer may have let down Snyder the director in ways that make the film a grand fascinating almost, a near-miss, an ambitious just-this-close.
The story the film tells is fairly straightforward, but the way the story is told is anything but. Baby Doll had a younger sister until one awful night after their mother died when their stepfather (the suitably toadlike Gerard Plunkett) went crazy and terrible things happened. Baby Doll is taken to an asylum for women, a gothic mental hospital where she’s basically handed off to Blue (Oscar Isaac) with a payment that guarantees that in a few days, a specialist will show up to give her a lobotomy, taking any secrets she might have out along with the grey matter. Baby Doll can’t handle what she sees going on around her, and she has a break with reality. To her, it’s not an asylum. It’s a brothel. And it’s not run-down and disgusting, it’s opulent and lush. The other girls aren’t mental patients, they are girls pressed into dancing (and more) for rich clients in an elaborate theater. Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) isn’t a psychiatrist trying to reach the girls through therapy, but is instead the madame, teaching these girls how to dance for their lives, literally. And Blue isn’t just an abusive orderly who will do anything for money, he’s actually a pimp, the man in charge, and the main obstacle between Baby Doll and freedom.
Before we ever get to the elaborate fantasies that make up much of the film’s ad campaign, we are given two different levels of reality to digest, and some of what didn’t work for me regarding the film deals with that set-up. As portrayed onscreen, the first two levels of reality are not distinct enough, nor is the transition between them clear enough, for audiences to really get their heads around what is going on. The film throws a lot of information at you, much of it non-verbal, and one of the keys to making it work is being clear about which reality is which, unless you want to play with ambiguity, in which case you still need to be able to keep them distinct. This film makes these first two levels look similar, and then when you add in the lack of any sort of establishing beats where it’s made clear how the transitions from “real” to “fantasy” work, it all feels like one level of reality where the rules just don’t quite add up.
It doesn’t help that the girls all seem to be playing icons and variations on themes rather than fully formed characters. Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone) are sisters, protective of one another. Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) round out the main group, although they’re certainly not the only girls in the hospital. It’s never clear why these particular girls end up becoming Baby Doll’s cohorts in a possible escape, but they all seem to just happily jump right into a broad, vague plan that is made to feel complex. The imagery that you see in all of the trailers and commercials of the dragons and the WWII battles and the mech-suits and the zombies and the Nazis and the robots… all of that is yet another level of reality, dreams within the first dream, and they are each meant to be a stylized version of something that really happens. The problem there is that I can’t make sense of what is logistically happening in the real world during those dreams, and as a result, while I appreciate the imagery, it doesn’t make sense to me as a narrative.
One of my favorite films is “Brazil,” the Terry Gilliam film about a man being crushed by the system and dealing with it through flights of fantasy, and looking at “Sucker Punch,” it’s obvious that it’s one of Snyder’s favorite films, too. In “Brazil,” Sam Lowry’s fantasies of flight are brief escapes from what is very clearly a reality that is breaking him a little more every day, and while the “reality” is also heightened, there is a distinct difference, and you’re always aware which is which. The fantasy material in the film also only takes up a few minutes, brief punctuation marks in the film, while in “Sucker Punch,” they dominate the film, and when you factor in the split levels of “reality” that aren’t even part of the big fantasy scenes, there’s very little in the film that you can actually call “real,” and that becomes a problem. It makes it hard to care about what’s happening, and while that’s not my favorite criticism of a film (I think “caring” is overrated as a reason to either like a film or not), in this case, we should invest in what’s happening. These girls are being terrorized, abused, mistreated, and with escape as the ultimate goal, we need to understand why that escape matters. I think there were specific ideas and beats and images that were important to Snyder as a director, and as a writer (working with Steve Shibuya), he never quite figured out how to organize all the ideas into something that worked coherently from start to finish. It strands those big gestures because without context, they don’t carry the weight they otherwise could.
The cast certainly gives it everything they’ve got, and I think there is some nice work in the film. It’s interesting that a film which fetishizes these characters as much as this one does also serves to comment on that tendency, putting the viewer on the spot as much as possible. You’ve got girls running around in skimpy schoolgirl outfits and hot nurse costumes, but the film also wants you to feel bad about ogling these girls because they are powerless in this situation. It’s strange because the film is set in the ’60s, but these fantasies, which are supposedly in the head of this teenage girl, all involve robots and clockwork Nazis and dragons, iconography that doesn’t seem period or character specific, at least not based on what little bit we see of Baby Doll. The fantasies are Snyder’s, not Baby Doll’s, and again, it serves to distance the viewer instead of draw them in. Again, looking back at “Brazil,” each of those fantasies of flight makes perfect sense when you see who Sam Lowry is and what it is that wants from his life. In this film, the fantasies all serve as elaborate forms of obfuscation of the things that are actually going on, which is frustrating as a viewer. I want to invest in what these girls are going through, and when they are empowered through these wild dreams, I want to feel that power. I want to understand the stakes, and I want to feel like there’s weight to what’s going on.
Overall, “Sucker Punch” will end up an interesting digression, a movie that Snyder had to make to move forward. He has pushed his stylistic concerns as far as he possibly can with this film, and my hope is that as he moves forward into “Superman” and whatever’s beyond that, he starts using his considerable visual gifts to find the best way to tell a story, rather than tell a story that is built to showcase those visual gifts. This feels like a case where the style is driving everything, which I’ve never said about Snyder’s work before, and in some ways, it feels like he has finally made the film his harshest critics claim he’s been making all along. In my opinion, it is only when you are willing to embarrass yourself completely that you are capable of making something great, and I can’t fault him for the ambition of what he’s done here. It’s the execution that feels like a swing and a miss, and I’d say this is the least successful thing he’s done overall. That’s hard to say for someone who feels like Snyder has been growing from picture to picture, but I’m glad he made it.
“Sucker Punch” opens tomorrow in theaters and IMAX everywhere.