To the discerning film fan the modern multiplex can be a depressing and woefully uninteresting place to quench one’s thirst for cinematic pleasures. Filled as it so often is with unrelentingly banal and superficial Hollywood spectacles that fail to even be the simplistic fireworks displays that they appear to promise to be.
To find a film that is also actually about something is like trying to find a tiny nugget of gold in an increasingly deep pile of manure. Aiding you in avoiding the bulk of the pile is a kind of consensus opinion that tends to spread quickly regarding those films that simply add to that pile and in particular those that load it on in wheelbarrow fulls. This often doesn’t seem to make a difference to box office receipts though, Transformers 3 being a recent example of this trend, and sometimes this advance word also just gets it plain wrong. This latter situation appears to have been the way things went with Sucker Punch, a film that seemed so derided that when attending a semi-public advance screening I witnessed negativity thrown at Snyder during a pre-film Q&A, from people who hadn’t even seen the film yet.
This negativity was a microcosm of the explosion of bile thrown at the film by many that had seen the film and many that hadn’t. This dismissive reaction was a white noise that quickly drowned out any moderate voices or even impassioned defences. This film was bad, misogynistic and dumb. It must be true, it said so on the internet. But Sucker Punch is far from bad, the reports regarding its apparent misogyny seem to have been based a surface level reading of a far more complex issue that went mostly un-discussed and any suggestion that a film that deliberately layered text upon subtext in a way that worked (although admittedly occasionally stumbled) in a complex and incredibly difficult way can surely never be called dumb.
Sucker Punch has intellectual depth and complexity that has rarely been discussed and it is this depth and complexity that deserves a second (or indeed first – one reason why this piece will be low on spoilers) look. This is not a film to take some sort of passive approach to or ignore out of a perceived idea of what surface level pleasures it is supposedly relying on. These surface pleasures actually appear to have been the biggest distraction in the debates surrounding the film and it is not in the action sequences that the meat of the film’s more fascinating elements can be found. They are undeniably important but it is more what writer/director Zack Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya are saying about this kind of action and the significance of what surrounds the sequences, and what goes unseen whilst they take place, that holds the key to the film’s thematic depth.
Sucker Punch is, on one reasonably basic level, an action film about action films, or more specifically about films in which women are active players in the film but do so whilst using their sexuality or being subject to objectification and even abuse by men (and/or male filmmakers). Sucker Punch taps into a long running debate surrounding what is often an area of exploitation filmmaking that is incredibly problematic and fraught with complex arguments. As stated this is done so within the framework of a film that may on the surface appear to be a prime example of this very kind of filmmaking. It is this delicate balancing act that relies on some very tricky self-reflexism that makes for such a risky and fascinating piece of bravura filmmaking.
This de-constructive approach on display actually prompted the first film to come to my mind upon leaving the cinema to not be an excessive action spectacle but Bob Fosse’s personally self-reflexive film All That Jazz, a film that explored Fosse’s own status as a musical director but also unpicks the very nature of musicals. This approach is one that is very close to the thematic obsessions of Snyder in Sucker Punch. and they also both have engrossing representations of the film industry that do little to flatter those involved. Whilst Fosse was relatively explicit with his allusions, particularly when ‘he’ experiences heart surgery as the backers of his musical bet against him surviving, Snyder is more oblique in his approach. One reading of the film, for instance, could position Gorski (Carla Gugino) in the role of the struggling director, leaving ’producer’ Blue (Oscar Isaac) and High Roller (Jon Hamm) to lobotomise and rape the leading ladies, but this is not the simple and narrow-minded approach taken by Snyder and Shibuya and things go beyond this rather simplistic reading.
All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Sucker Punch though, and one that has led to harsh if dare I say misguided criticism, is highlighted with the possible reading of pscho-drama psychiatrist/ dance instructor/Madam Gorski as a film director surrogate. This underpins the most difficult issue facing Snyder in making Sucker Punch, using the very thing he is de-constructing and critiquing as a way to explore it. Accusations of him attempting to “have his cake and eat it” are quick to spring forth but these could well be more born out of the influence of the highly misleading and gratuitous marketing campaign than an analysis of the film. Isn’t the tricky game that Snyder and Shibuya are attempting to play one that leads to a richer and more fascinating text and isn’t it all the more impressive that they so often succeed. Surely the alleged compromise is not as much of an issue as it has been presented.
Think of the ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ number from LeRoy and Berkeley’s Golddiggers of 1933 (a film that has a prominent visual reference in Sucker Punch), a sequence that directly references the depression and the plight of returning soldiers. Does the entertainment value, aided by the opulence of the number, the giant coins in the We’re in the Money sequence or the general lavishness of the production undermine the social commentary that is so significant in the film. It certainly impacts on it but the film is fascinating and vital regardless, it certainly doesn’t nullify what is clearly embedded in the text and the subtext. The truth with Sucker Punch appears to be that many refuse to see beyond its ‘Giant coins’ choosing to ignore the more substantive discussion points raised throughout.
In exploring the action and exploitation genre Snyder also eschews any simple answers, choosing not to preach to the audience a simple message, such as female empowerment comes through ass kicking action or that ass kicking action in a short skirt destroys any idea of female empowerment – two concepts that seem the only options in many critic’s minds. He instead chooses not to offer a narrow minded polemic but further problematises the debate, making it all the more interesting. Snyder chooses to explore a complex argument and offer no over-simplified solution, opening the debate and exploring competing ideas. Isn’t this something that we love filmmakers doing, not a cause for instant complaint and dismissal.
There is an area though where there is a clear focused line of argument that speaks strongly about the way males engage in watching women perform and it is an element in the film that seems very critical, despite the aforementioned multi-stranded approach. This is the focus on female subjugation and objectification through the action genre and the way in which this is explored though the choice to not show Baby Doll’s allegedly ”tittilating” dance, the dance is replaced by the elaborate action set pieces instead. Whilst the men in the brothel gawp at Baby Doll’s dance we are shown intricately constructed action set pieces that surely leave any engaged viewer with many conflicting thoughts. The choice to not show the dance is also a move that has had its point wonderfully proven with every new internet commentator that complains about not getting to see it or indeed a higher level of female flesh that they appear to have been promised by the already scant outfits.
Baby Doll’s dances are also explicitly critiqued by the character of Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), “The dance should be more than just titillation… what the heck does your’s say?”. Significantly Sweet Pea’s introduction in the brothel is on stage as she rehearses her own dance, one that mirrors Baby Doll’s impending lobotomy and also, crucially, Sweet Pea’s own appearance on ‘stage’ in the asylum. This appearance is her first introduction in the asylum and it is also our introduction to the pyscho-drama stage that Gorski uses to explore the girl’s most troubling memories, an approach mirrored in Gorski’s role in the brothel.
Sweet Pea’s memories are hinted to be somewhat related to the events we see in the opening, namely Baby Doll’s attempted escape from an abusing father. When a transition is made between the asylum and the brothel, Sweet Pea openly criticises the opening scene and comments on the idea that maybe a lobotomy (with hindsight read rape also) is not the sexiest of scenarios.
This mirroring and layering that pervades throughout Sucker Punch (even evident in the smartly redressed sets) is both the key to unlocking the narrative structure of Sucker punch but also the discussion being had in relation to thematic concerns.
I have been somewhat obtuse in the past two paragraphs, and to a lesser degree throughout this piece, in a deliberate effort to not reveal too much with regards to the plot in an effort to not spoil too much for a first time viewer or the pleasure of finding elements hitherto unnoticed for those who re-watch the film. This piece is not designed to be a thorough analysis of Sucker Punch, this would take many more thousands of words, but hopefully will have provided something of a counter argument to those stressing that this is a film to be avoided.
I’ve now seen Sucker Punch multiple times and have found new areas of interest with each watch and can also highly recommend checking out the extended cut, which builds satisfyingly upon the thesis already evident in the theatrical cut. This film is a rich text designed for an active viewer and if you are willing to engage with the film and explore its many facets you will, I’m sure, find much to consider and discuss.
Sucker Punch is now available to buy or rent on Blu-ray in a triple play edition that contains both the theatrical and the extended cuts.