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.