Friday, 9 December 2011

Sucker Punch - Film of the Year 2011

Sucker Punch is the story of the abuse of women, domestic and institutional historical and modern. It is the story of five girls/young women, and one in particular - Baby Doll, an orphan.

She has been placed in a mental hospital (framed by her step-father for the death of her sister) in which she is destined to receive a lobotomy. As she is about to be operated on, she finds it within herself to move to a new reality - a brothel. Here she is being prepared to have sexual intercourse with a man called the High Roller. In preparation for this meeting, Baby Doll is told that she must learn to dance.

Her dancing transfixes the men in her presence, which hypnotism her new-found friends (also present in the brothel reality) take advantage of to acquire five items that she believes will help them escape. Just as the men are distracted, so are we, for we do not see her dance but are instead led into a splendidly exciting third reality - where the girls fight battles with samurai monsters, zombie nazis and fire-breathing dragons (traditionally male arenas) - through which we see those quests played out.

Here the girls adapt the costumes of exploitation, cutting their outfits into attractive uniforms for battle against it, draining them of associations of filth and breathing soul into body, turning revulsion into revelry and an adventure of freedom. Within seconds I did not see exposed flesh and live toys to be fondled - I only saw them. We revel in them and with them (and of course there is nothing wrong with finding women attractive or with lust).

What is ugly is made beautiful, just as the tomb of a moth secretly becomes the womb of a butterfly. What may tempt some is acknowledged, laid in front of us and then remodelled.

What is more, there is no hatred, no vindictiveness, no revenge. Baby Doll's abusive step-father quickly disappears from the stage. No-one is hounded, humiliated or 'made to pay'. The girls show mercy throughout. Only inner strength and self-respect count. This is not about women versus men but right versus wrong and humanity versus inhumanity. Calling for a reductive label to be put on a film (feminist, chauvinist, degrading or empowering?) pretzel-twists all nuance, delicacy, and personal responsibility and morality out of the equation.

All that matters is that we care. And I did.

Sucker Punch speaks the right language. It places us both in the girls' shoes, pained, uplifted and inspired, and in those of their oppressors. Sucker Punch lives in the midst of what it criticises (the type of person, the type of film).

Are we to be distracted from what is really happening in the brothel, what is really happening in the hospital? Will we allow, like those men in the dark, our soul to be stolen from under our nose, bewitched by these loud noises,  these propulsive songs and intense gyrations? These abstractions are used to divert us, to make the story palatable, to turn barren, po-faced lecture (many films about abuse tastefully leave our possible complicity and the gradations of exploitation to one side) into apt demonstration and to mirror the closed doors and drawn curtains behind which awful acts are perpetrated.

There are risks to giving medicine with sugar (to having one's cake and eating it) as some will taste only the sickly sweet and relish the boobs (albeit there are no lascivious or gratuitous shots whatsoever), the lipstick smears and the ejaculatory gunfire. For them the film may be encouragement for 'objectification' or 'mindlessness'. Many critics and viewers have indeed seen the film itself, rather than its situation, as degrading and misogynistic.

What do you see?

Each action is code for another on a different layer, each object has a counterpart elsewhere on a second and third map. Sucker Punch is strong and dark with metaphor, its structure brilliantly interwoven with its message. These are not the tangential puzzles found in Mulholland Drive or Inception. Rather they drive to the very heart of the narrative. There is no obfuscation.

We are exhilarated and moved by camaraderie and solidarity and sacrifice. We are saddened and perturbed as the meaning of what we see is exposed by its echoes. Sucker Punch is massively enjoyable and increasingly hard to watch for what's at stake.

When do these stories begin to break through the screen?

What do the dances in the brothel mean in the hospital - do they stand for therapy or for rape? Does sex with the high roller in the brothel mean a lobotomy in the hospital? There is no easy way out. The realities are not dreams or escapes, but vivid and tangible expressions, paths to clawing back a little independence, dignity and happiness. This is non-escapist entertainment that, cleverly and (I believe) necessarily, looks and sounds like escapist entertainment.

Sucker Punch promotes the significance and power of love, of the mind, of stories, of film, of allegory, and of physical intimacy.

Are we perverts for pulling these curtains back? Or are we exposing something true and rotten?

Fun, intelligent and emotionally powerful. The finest film of the year.

17 comments:

  1. What do I see? Well... I see misconcieved garbage.
    "Sucker Punch is massively enjoyable and increasingly hard to watch for what's at stake." You got half of that right there, it's hard to watch because it's just so awful in every little sense of it. I don't hate it as much as many people out there but I can say that is definitively not a good movie.
    There are some films like these, and I thought that you'd mention it, that feel like a videogame, but sometimes there are good and bad videogames, as there are bad and good movies, and this is a boring and one note videogame, like a beat-em-up scroller film that is unfocused and just annoying to watch because all of it it's so crammed and definitively and boringly anacronic.
    I look at Baby Doll, yes, and her baby doll as well, which is really the best thing about the film: costume design, it should win an oscar for it.
    What really got me wondering is how you mention Inception and Mullholand Dr., two movies that don't even deserve to be mentioned next to this overblown boring action filled film. Because not even the action is good, the action is boring, repetitive, and when you get to the third confrontation, you're seeing the same movements and the same things over and over again, you actually know what to expect, and that's not escapism, that's more like boredom to me.
    The movie could've been good, I actually looked forward to it, just by the way it looked, but I see the fault here and it's Snyder's complete failure as an original screenwriter, because if you mix as many genres and male fantasies as you can, you won't have a good movie, you'll have scene or even Shot porn. Scenes and shots and creatures (yeah, creature porn doesn't sound good) that have no function other than to be there and provoque a "duuuuude that is awesomeeee" and then forget about it the second after... where's the fun in that?
    For a moment I hoped that this review was satyrical, but then I remembered you hate that.
    This movie irates me, as it seems everything that is wrong with misconceived high budget "looking for popular and wide appeal" films. It has action, so dudes are gonna see it, but it also has strong chicks, so dudettes are gonna see it. That shit I hate about modern film.
    Now, the worst thing is, of course, those unnecesary layers upon layers of stories and subplots that didn't have anything to do with the film, it was unnecesary: all of them. They seemed put there to shock or awe or whatever, to say "how edgy", fuck that shit.
    Sorry about my language, but I friggin' hated the film. And more now that I look upon it again.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Jaime,

    "Sorry about my language, but I friggin' hated the film."

    Don't worry about it! I could say something along the lines of 'it must have something going for it to provoke such a response' but of course that's nonsense.

    Thanks for the comment, Jaime - I enjoyed reading it. This is an object lesson in how two different people basically see two different works of art.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I enjoyed "Sucker Punch" myself, and it may even wind up in my top 20 or so. I admire what Snyder is doing here, trying to break out of the repetitions of remakes and close-to-the-bone adaptations. I even like what he's attempting with the visuals, the basic story, and really found myself liking the characters in a genuine way-- he's underrated at getting real, emotional performances from people in really high-concept stuff. However, I do think he could've used help in the script stage beyond what he got-- this was an ambitious attempt at narrative gaming and subversion that's carried out about half-well, but deserved better. Perhaps one problem with the film is that it heroicizes the idea of disassociation during trauma, which is all well and good, but aside from fantasies collapsing when reality turns bad, we don't really see the darker side of it, or at least as dark as it can get in our day to day.

    I wouldn't call it the film of the year by a third or a quarter, but I respect what it stands for. Or maybe I'm just a fiend for chicks in sailor-suit schoolgirl unifforms.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Bob,

    "Perhaps one problem with the film is that it heroicizes the idea of disassociation during trauma, which is all well and good, but aside from fantasies collapsing when reality turns bad, we don't really see the darker side of it, or at least as dark as it can get in our day to day."

    I see what you mean. The onus is on us to keep in mind what they are really fighting for. Perhaps it goes too far. I still think, in the main, that it it is a good way of representing their struggle for the reasons I put in the piece.

    "...and really found myself liking the characters in a genuine way-- he's underrated at getting real, emotional performances from people in really high-concept stuff."

    I think that is what made this the first Snyder film I have enjoyed. His others felt cold to me in character and style. Once you have characters you care about, then the story and style take off.

    I look forward to your top 20.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I pretty much completely agree with Bob's comment (which is odd, because I usually disagree with him).

    I really liked Sucker Punch. Saw it twice, in fact. At the same time, I'm not really sure I could defend it as a "good" movie--it's too confused and awkward and potentially offensive and kind of clumsy for that. But it is a highly creative, visually dazzling and unique, risk-taking and personal movie attempting to do something new in blockbuster movies, and it' therefore worth watching. It's simultaneously dumb and complex, unbelievable and transporting. Snyder is immature as a director and lacks all subtlety, but he also has great ambition and the vision to make really gorgeous pulp images. I think his complete over-the-top-ness is the heart of his appeal. Somewhat OTT is a bad thing-failed seriousness. But take it far enough and not only hugely entertaining, it can become serious again, packing more emotional power than expected. He doesn't always achieve this, but when he does it's something to see.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Stephen,

    It is creative and more emotionally powerful than I expected, too. I think that Snyder does have subtlety, only it can be hidden behind the overall brashness of the film.

    I'm not sure how a film you "really liked" cannot be classed as good(!). If you think it has lots wrong with it then that, to me, means that it is a good film that had the potential to be great.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the film. It is already sweeping the boards in the worst film of the year lists. Thanks for the comment.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Sucker Punch promotes the significance and power of love, of the mind, of stories, of film, of allegory, and of physical intimacy."

    Wow! And promoting it as the best film of the year as well. I have always admired your audacity and insistence on going the distance in relating your connection with a work. I am not a fan, but no matter. I relish this perspective!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Well, ummm, hey! I like that you put this at the top of your list. Why the heck not? No one else that I know of has. And if you are that passionate about then right on!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you Matt.

    I gather that you're not a great fan, then! I haven't seen it at the top of any lists either. Only at the bottom!

    ReplyDelete
  10. I do like it [director's cut] and it will have a special mention on my best of the year. I think it could have staying power as a cult film.

    ReplyDelete
  11. "I think it could have staying power as a cult film."

    You might well be right. I (narrowly) prefer the theatrical cut, in fact.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I watched Sucker Punch about when it came out, and don't remember much -- except the astonishment, the feel of the environment (and how important the songs were) and being struck by the ending (I remember it as having something to do with her going away on a bus, but there's at least one very important detail which I've forgotten).

    I'm not entirely convinced by your argument about how sexist it is because I think of the intended audience for this and how mind-bogglingly complex Snyder's head is, though on a personal level I experienced it much as you did, but that owes as much as to anything else to my very confused understanding of how oppression and its rhetoric works.
    But, I trust completely in Snyder's intention. While feminists all around talk about objectification, Snyder went and made first ab-porn and then a blockbuster with a penis hanging around in an utterly innocuous fashion for half the running time (most men in American movies and TV seem to have sex with their underwear on).
    I envision him as being at one of the most important front-lines in the fight against sexism.

    One thing about this movie that struck me and not you -- pretty much the only such thing, it seems -- is how important the songs are during the action sequences; while he wisely refrains from choreographing his fights to them, they form an integral part of the video game tableau while also reminding us of the brothel level. There were more detailed thoughts when I was watching the movie.

    Zack Snyder is on the more insane* end of the creative spread, and this here piece is much deserved recognition of its value. I tried writing about it, but I had so much trouble letting go of the convolutedness and focusing on the thing that was convoluted that I gave up.
    *As in undisciplined; bad at giving the impression that he's in control of the implications he's generating.

    And, in case, you haven't already seen it, here's Andrew O'Hehir's review, the only one I found that pays appropriate heed to Snyder's insanity: http://www.salon.com/2011/03/25/sucker_punch/singleton/

    ReplyDelete
  13. Ronak,

    I don't think the film is sexist at all. It does depict sexism and it does utilise sexiness in a brash/subtle way.

    "I tried writing about it, but I had so much trouble letting go of the convolutedness and focusing on the thing that was convoluted that I gave up."

    I found it hard too until I let go of the idea that this film is fundamentally a puzzle. You can make easy sense of it without having to be conscious of how everything fits. You understand it emotionally and instinctively.

    You are quite right about the music. Normally I wouldn't enjoy such blatant 'music video' soundtracking of action scenes but it worked. As well as the pulse of the music being exciting, the lyrics of the songs, of course, comment on Baby Doll's situation

    Thank you for the link. I think I may have read it.

    Sucker Punch is interesting - it feels 100% like a film for girls and 100% like a film for boys.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Wow! Well done for sticking to your guns, and explaining why you thought it was a good film. For me Sucker Punch was easily the worst film of the year, and Zack Snyder is fast becoming one of my bottom five directors, along with Michael Bay and Quentin Tarantino. I don't think it was morally bankrupt like a lot of people have been saying but for me it was boring, over indulgent shlock, in much the same way I found Sin City to be. Still I liked your analysis and can understand why you liked it, which is a credit to your writing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Still I liked your analysis and can understand why you liked it, which is a credit to your writing!"

      Thanks very much Mr_Jellyfish. I'm glad you got something out of what I wrote even if not out of the film!

      I'm not a fan of Michael Bay's films but I don't hate them by any means. Quentin Tarantino is sometimes good (Pulp Fiction), sometimes not (Inglourious Basterds). I can agree with you on Sin City.

      Delete
  15. Its a very good film which is worth spending time. I saw it when it was released two years back. Thanks for this cool review that will help all those who haven't seen it yet.
    Sucker Punch Soundtrack

    ReplyDelete