Defending “Sucker Punch”
This week Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch came out on DVD, and since a) I didn’t get a chance to review it properly when it came out in theaters and b) I thought it was fundamentally misunderstood by the people who did review it, I’m posting my thoughts here. By the way, you’d better believe I’m doing the same thing for Cars 2 when it comes out on DVD.
Snyder told the press shortly after his notoriously male-centric 300 came out that he wanted to make a movie with mostly women in the cast. Sucker Punch is that movie. The story is about a girl named Babydoll (Emily Browning) who’s committed to an insane asylum by her abusive and murderous stepfather who connives with the head orderly named Blue (Oscar Isaac) to fast-track her lobotomization. While awaiting her fate, Babydoll imagines herself in a fantasy world in which she and her fellow inmates — Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and her younger sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung) — are dancers in a sleazy nightclub. Within the fantasy, there’s another fantasy world in which the dancers become soldiers carrying out missions and laying waste to various enemies.
The reviews were downright poisonous — take your pick here. Even the comic-book fantasy-adventure geeks, who have been Snyder’s core audience, didn’t rally behind this the way they did behind Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, two other action movies that were commercial failures. Strangely enough, I don’t think the critics were wrong. Much of what they wrote about the film is absolutely true. It’s just beside the point. They said Sucker Punch was a failure as a girl-empowerment fable. I don’t think that’s what the movie was after (more on that in the next paragraph), but it certainly doesn’t work as such. The male villains include a fat cook who tries to rape Rocket, a wizened lighter-flicking guard who appears in the nightclub sequences as a leering fat-cat mayor, and the pathetic Blue, who’s seen as a nightclub manager who rules his dancers with an iron hand. These are grotesque caricatures who are impossible to take seriously. (There’s also the schoolgirl outfits that the heroines do their ass-kicking in, but more on that in the next paragraph as well.) The critics also said the characters are paper-thin, and that’s true as well. Although, who goes to a Zack Snyder film for layered, complex characters? That’s never been what he does. I’ll even add my own criticisms: the movie is marred by bad writing, especially Sweet Pea’s voiceover narration at the beginning and end of the movie and the tinpot wisdom of the sensei/commanding officer (Scott Glenn), which makes him sound like Dr. Phil at his least coherent. Still, none of this quite explains the vitriol that critics greeted the movie with, something that others picked up on.
Here’s what everybody missed: This movie is a work of homosexual camp. It is burlesque, and it’s much more successful as that than Burlesque, which came out a few months before. If you think of Babydoll and her fellow dancers as women, this thing falls apart, but it makes a lot more sense if you think of them as drag queens. (Or ticked-off trannies with knives, if you will. That movie debuts on Showtime this Saturday, by the way.) These characters’ names are stripper names, but they’re also drag queen names. The same goes for their little schoolgirl outfits, which don’t actually reveal all that much — this is a PG-13-rated film, after all — and aren’t that titillating to straight men except for those straight men who have a rather specific set of fetishes. Interestingly enough, even though the script makes it clear that the girls are prostitutes (and Snyder says so on the Blu-Ray DVD extras, identifying their club as a brothel), there’s no sex in the movie, not even in the deleted scenes from the movie’s R-rated early cut. The closest we get to sex are the attempted rapes by the cook and Blue, and a deleted scene between Babydoll and The High Roller (Jon Hamm), a rich client who’s come to purchase her. (There’s a good reason why that latter scene was deleted: It’s terrible.) The absence of sex encourages us to interpret these characters as androgynous or epicene. It seems to me that the ideal audience for Sucker Punch is all those gay boys who’ve been bullied and, very humanly, imagined themselves unleashing payback on their tormentors. In that light, it’s no wonder why the movie failed financially. Not only is that audience small, relative to the size of the general public, but they tend not to be drawn toward hard-edged action-thrillers with lots of shootings and explosions. They should give this movie a chance; I think those gay boys would find much to like.
If you need a refresher on camp, I refer you to Susan Sontag’s seminal essay “Notes on ‘Camp’.” You’ll readily recognize in Sucker Punch the heavy layers of artifice and exaggeration that Sontag describes. The early 1960s décor and fashions and the presence of Mad Men’s Jon Hamm places the movie squarely in the era of high camp, Judy Garland, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Of course, everyone missed this because camp is harder to find in today’s pop culture. Something else that may have fooled people is the fact that Snyder is not gay, the incredible homoeroticism of 300 notwithstanding. It’s been decades since camp was solely the province of gay male artists. If the movie had had a flamboyantly gay director’s name on it, or even a non-flamboyantly gay one’s, it would have been better understood.
My favorite parts of Sucker Punch are the five major action sequences, which are all filmed like musical numbers: a prologue with Babydoll failing to save her sister from her stepdad; a scene at a Japanese temple with her battling three 10-foot-tall samurai warriors toting giant blades and machine guns; Babydoll and her fellow warriors storming dug-out trenches to battle German World War I soldiers; the ladies slaying a dragon by assailing a medieval castle held by orcs; and a raid on a bullet train guarded by robots armed with lasers. The sheer diversity of the villains and settings is better than most movies give you. These action scenes are all gorgeous and fluid enough to be watched on a loop, especially with the sumptuous photography by cinematographer Larry Fong, whose work on Super 8 is currently winning raves.
Some of the reviewers complained that these action sequences looked the same. I don’t know what they mean; each of them has its own character. That comes in large part from the different songs that each sequence is set to, but the music is not the only element. The prologue could have been the climax of a different movie were it not for its slow pace and otherworldly dreaminess; it’s like something out of Brian de Palma’s 1970s films. The World War I scene has some ferociously complex fight choreography, yet it’s so cleanly laid out that you can draw a diagram of the trenches illustrating the precise movements of our heroines and the enemies that they cut down. I don’t think it’s a secret that I geek out about this stuff. (Now you see why I can’t stand Michael Bay’s movies. That was a gratuitous jab, and it felt really good.) The scene on the train is filmed in a single take, and even though you do occasionally lose track of individual girls, it still has its own integrity because it switches between single characters as they slice and shoot their way through the robots in the train’s close quarters. Adding spice to this for me is the fact that I’ve seen all these actresses in other roles, and they’re some of the least intimidating presences in Hollywood, so I get a kick out of seeing them transformed into these lethal fighters.
The most obvious influence on this movie is Elia Kazan’s controversial 1956 drama Baby Doll. It’s a Southern Gothic fable about a 19-year-old child bride who controls men by enticing them sexually with infantile behavior. (No kidding; she sleeps in a crib and sucks her thumb.) The other major forebear of this movie is Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, with its overt theatricality, anachronistic use of contemporary music in a period setting, and fondness for women in corsets. I blogged earlier on the movie’s innovative, Goth, cover-heavy soundtrack.
Below this, I’m embedding the movie’s most Moulin Rouge! moment, the dance number set to Oscar Isaac and Carla Gugino’s cabaret-lounge cover of “Love Is the Drug,” which was cut out of the finished film, only appearing in truncated form over the end credits. (I love the accordion over the instrumental break.) The Blu-Ray DVD restores the number, which showcases the cast’s dancing skills. I’ve added Zack Snyder to my long list of directors whom I wish would direct a musical. While I don’t think Sucker Punch will make my list of the ten best movies of 2011, this movie is strange and unique and beautiful, and that’s worth overlooking any number of flaws for. If I had my choice of watching any Zack Snyder movie again right now, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second before I picked this one. Visually, it’s the most adventurous action film since the Kill Bill movies. You should give Sucker Punch a whirl this weekend. It’s fabulous.