And finally, this question: the mystery of whose story it will be, of who draws the curtain, who is it that chooses our steps in the dance, who drives us mad, lashes us with whips and crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible - who is it that tells all these things? […]Who honors those we love with the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us and at the same time sings that we'll never die? Who teaches us what's real and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live and what we'll die to defend? Who chains us and who holds the key that can set us free? It's you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight.
The island for people who think that Sucker Punch is a good and enjoyable movie with a couple of really interesting ideas that were possibly not executed perfectly seems to be a very lonely and deserted place. Apparently, a movie featuring female characters in revealing outfits can not possibly be empowering and must be misogynistic, especially if the director is male (nobody seems to remember the fact that Zack Snyder once made a movie about 300 shirtless men doing stuff – he is more of an equal opportunity offender when it comes to the objectification of bodies).
Sucker Punch is a box in a box in a box, a movie with three layers of reality, and each of the boxes is more hyper-real and stranger than the one before – the primary “reality”, the starting point, is the barely explored place that might be the United States around the Second World War, maybe a bit later. The story begins in a fashion that resembles fairy tales: an attempt to stand up against the evil stepfather goes horribly wrong; Baby Doll (Emily Browning), the heroine of the movie, accidentally kills her own sister and is sent away to a mental asylum, both to punish her behaviour and to allow the stepfather to gain control of her inheritance. Mental Health Institutions have a long and tragic history of serving society and individuals wishing to punish unaccepted behaviour (and especially to control and discipline women “misbehaving” against the norm and the established power structure) – and this is how the story starts. Baby Doll becomes a victim of that practice. The corrupt director of the institution (Oscar Isaac) takes her rights and freedom in exchange for money without asking any questions about what happened (“I don’t know what you did to this girl and frankly, I don’t want to know”).
Baby Doll is traumatized when she arrives at the asylum and her identity and perception of reality are additionally fractured by the treatment she receives. Her only escape is fantasy world which has the same features of prison and control, but also allows her to imagine a way out for herself and a group of other women (the film doesn’t allow the audience to get to know the other characters of the film in the “real” reality of the film, which gives the impression of weak characterization, but it’s just the result of the extreme subjectivity of Baby Doll’s perspective in the two layers of her fantasy – she “creates” the other characters). The psychiatrist Dr Gorski (Carla Gugino) treats the patients by teaching them how to be safe and free while dancing to music, and Baby Doll adopts this practice to escape the harsh reality of the asylum – “what you are imagining right now, the world that you control, that place can be as real as any pain”.
Fantasies and stories are vital in the creation of meaning and identity. Baby Doll’s story promises escape – from the brutal reign of Blue Jones in both the reality of the asylum and the reality of the night club / bordello (where the psychiatrist is a dance instructor/director), from the precarious mental state, from a place where one signature can deny a woman’s right to exist as a free person. Baby Doll and her group of fellow inmates, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) devise a plan to capture objects (a map, a lighter, a knife, a key) that will lead to freedom. The actual hunt for these objects take place in an even more dreamlike fantasy, one that becomes accessible to the group whenever Baby Doll dances.
If you do not dance, you have no purpose… and we don’t keep things here that have no purpose. Your fight for survival starts right now. You don’t want to be judged? You won’t be. You don’t think you’re strong enough? You are. You’re afraid? Don’t be. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!
If Sucker Punch was a movie only interested in catching the viewers’ attention by objectifying its female characters, the dance scenes would have been a central feature, but they aren't. The movie shows the effect Baby Doll’s dancing has on the audience, but never the dancing itself. It hints at the things the girls are forced to do in the bordello, but leaves the actual extent of the abuse to the imagination of the audience.
Zack Snyder draws heavily from other material in the construction of the different levels of this third layer of reality/fantasy. The places, themes and creatures all seem strangely familiar, but then, this fits in well with the idea of the movie and works on a meta level as well: movies and fiction define how fantasies look like. They create a pool of shared references – the wise man (literally) advancing the self-discovery of the hero, the temple, the choice of weapons, the steampunk robots and zeppelins, the horrible trenches of the First World War, the fire-breathing dragons and magical crystals, the faceless and deadly machines in the final level all seem strangely familiar, but that’s the point. This aspect of the movie isn’t new and revolutionary (the execution of the fight scenes and the visually stunning worlds maybe are, but I’m not the right person to judge visual effects and action sequences), but their function within the story, the way they are embedded in Baby Doll’s journey and struggle, is intriguing.
Baby Doll accepts the weapons. It is the first step towards becoming free – realizing her own resources, the actual weapons in her fantasy world, the mental strength not to give up in the dreary real world which we will only revisit in the end (the movie leaves it to the audience to translate the heightened and fairy-tale/game-like metaphor of the struggle back into terms that apply to the reality of the mental institution).
Baby Doll is the heroine of the movie, but by the end she realizes she is not the heroine of the story she has been telling. She has the resources to bring freedom, but not her own; instead she is the mysterious fifth object which enables someone else’s freedom. In the end, she sacrifices herself, her individuality, her identity, to help Sweet Pea break free – and with her sacrifice she destroys the horrendous institution that has imprisoned them (by making the psychiatrist realize she has been an unknowing accomplice in the destruction of her patients), and thus, becomes not a victim but a true heroine, if at a very high cost.
2011, directed by Zack Snyder, starring Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn
you have written an amazing synopsis of this amazing movie. love it
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