Film Review: Sucker Punch (2011)

Sucker Punch is not a great film. It's not even a really good film. Zack Snyder's latest directorial effort is a visually intriguing presentation of a lackluster story saved by excellent editing and use of music. The opening scenes, taking place over the span of one somber song, are the most effective, beautiful, and heart-wrenching scenes in the film. In them, Baby Doll and her younger sister find out their Mother has died and their Stepfather is their new caretaker. The Stepfather, enraged that his former wife would leave everything she owned to her two children, decides to eliminate the girls. He locks Baby Doll in her room and goes after the younger sister. Baby Doll escapes down a rain gutter in the rain, picks up her Stepfather's gun, and shoots at him, only to discover her sister was already murdered. Covered in blood, Baby Doll runs to her mother's grave that is still covered in the fresh floral displays from the funeral. The police apprehend her and, with her Stepfather's permission, bring her to an insane asylum for evaluation. Here she discovers that her Stepfather is paying extra money to have her lobotomized in five days so she can never testify against him in court.

This scene showcases what Sucker Punch should have been. The visual storytelling is perfectly done, using the bare-minimum of dialog as an artistic tool to focus the eye on key plot elements. The action lines up perfectly with the soundtrack, almost like a ballet in the American Musical Comedy tradition. Everything, from the lights to the sets to the performances to the effects, is perfect in this sequence.

Then Snyder snaps us into Baby Doll's fantasy world, which is an interesting narrative device. Instead of being in an asylum awaiting a lobotomy, Baby Doll is an orphan sold off to a brothel where her virginity will be lost to a high-power client five days from now. Where the opening sequence was noir in tones, the alternate vision of the asylum is colorful and demented. The girls wear variations of a black and gray dance uniform and perform chores and dances for the owners of the facility.

From here, every time Baby Doll starts to dance, she enters another fantasy world that teaches her how to escape from the asylum. Again, the visual device works, and the action sequences are thrilling and memorable. The problem is all of these lovely visuals are wasted on a story that's too linear for them. The stakes of the film never change. Everything that happens onscreen is just another step towards Baby Doll trying to escape her date with the knife. The closest thing to a subplot is the relationship between sisters Rocket and Sweet Pea, but it is so pared down from Snyder's original vision (you can look it up in all sorts of interviews online) that you won't even notice it's happening.

Snyder's vision is the problem here. Or rather, his inability to convince whoever had the final cut to go with his vision. I watched an interview with stars Emily Browning and Jena Malone that explained that a lot of stuff was cut from the script: subplots, character arcs, scenes, and motifs. They also mentioned something that makes a lot more sense to me than what wound up onscreen. Jena Malone discussed how part of her audition was singing.

At some point, Sucker Punch was going to include musical performances to help tell the story. If you stay through the end credits, you'll see a rough cut of the big group number without the vocal. Considering how often the big action sequences play out like aerial ballet, I could see Sucker Punch having been a solid hybrid musical/fantasy/action film. That explains the linear plot and lack of character development; if each of the girls performed a song exploring their deepest feelings and fears, you would have learned everything you needed about the characters.

Unfortunately for the composite rating of this film from all the different critics, Zack Snyder assumes that filmgoers understand the concepts of archetypes and metaphors. How wrong he is. I thought most of the visual metaphors were quite clear--the clock and steam powered Nazis are the heavy-breathing customers, the mother dragon you're not supposed to wake up is one odious client's penis, the protective airship driven by Amber is the dressing room the orderlies don't go into. However, when I left the theater, I heard the same complaints I read in other reviews. A lot of people aren't getting the representational nature of Baby Doll's action fantasies to what is happening in the film. Because of that, they think there is too much going on and the film has no story.

As far as I'm concerned, Sucker Punch's flaw is not having enough narrative. Snyder didn't need to add more spoken exposition (as comments like "you have all the weapons you need" or "an angel can be an old man, a young girl, or even a dragon" were quite clear when the time came to understand them); he needed to add more story, period. Once the song conceit was eliminated, he needed to add more to this story to explain all the things that happen. These could have been little incidental scenes ala Pan's Labyrinth to better prepare the viewer for the wilder fantasy notions.

Frankly, I think the whole film would have been viewed as enjoyable eye-candy if Snyder wrote one scene of group therapy better introducing all the girls and their therapist. If each girl got to speak a little about what brought them there (which was unspoken but, to me, clearly used to assign each girl their role in the fantasy/action sequences) and the therapist got to explain the method behind her use of music, the film would have been better for everyone.

Do I think Sucker Punch is a bad film? No. Despite the negative tone at times in this review, I rather liked it. I'm just frustrated with a lot of things connected to the film. The film is filled with wasted potential, but the critics are more of a problem for me. You can't complain that action films are mindless, misogynistic, and without merit, only to lob those complaints at a film that has a brain, empowers its female characters to actually make a change in their lives (being in a whorehouse/asylum does not automatically mean the characters are exploited, especially since they fight over the entire course of the film to better their lives and get away), and is shot, edited, and styled with great skill. You can't have it both ways. Not every film that has a girl in a short skirt is exploitation, and not every action film allows you to shut off your brain and play dumb and blame the filmmaker when you chose not to pay attention.

I think you should give Sucker Punch a chance. Don't bother with IMAX if you can avoid it as the visuals are stunning even on a regular movie screen. Go in knowing that the story isn't revolutionary (but the filmmaking might be), pay attention to how the visual metaphors are used and evolve throughout the film, and you'll come out a happy customer.

Rating: 6/10

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