Taking a second look at “Sucker Punch”

by Sonny Bunch on December 21, 2011

I didn’t see enough movies this year to put together a proper Top Ten list, unfortunately. But I did want to talk about one flick that came and went without too much notice earlier in the year that would have gotten consideration for such a list, should I have made one: Sucker Punch. (As this ended up being pretty long, my thoughts are after the jump.)

I can practically hear some of you snickering, but bear with me. I won’t deny the movie was a failure. But it was an interesting failure — a grand, ambitious, hopelessly cluttered failure from an auteur who was given 100 feet of rope and a suspension bridge to jump from. Zack Snyder took the leap with glee and is probably still smarting from the 9% fresh rating from top critics on Rotten Tomatoes.

As you might recall (but probably don’t because the movie grossed only $36 million), Sucker Punch centers on the travails of a girl sent to a mental institution after accidentally killing her sister while trying to protect her from their evil stepfather.* The stepfather, enraged that he can only inherit his newly dead wife’s fortune if the girls are out of the way, arranges for her to be lobotomized. The girl, “Baby Doll,” must unite a quartet of fellow patients in order to escape the hellish, abusive facility before her brain is turned to mush.

That summary doesn’t quite do the story justice. Most of the action takes place one level down, so to speak: In an imagined world, or possibly a shared delusion, where the girls are working/imprisoned at a burlesque house and forced to dance (and do more) for the enjoyment of wealthy businessmen and petty thugs. But there’s still one more level to go, a wholly fantastic nerd paradise where Snyder’s id conjures up the most bizarre juxtapositions: One sequence, for example, features World War I German zombies powered by steampunk technology fighting against a lass piloting a mech warrior and her merry band of butchers, one of whom, for some reason, comes equipped with a flintlock pistol straight off the set of Barry Lyndon.

The action sequences are the heart of the film, and no one does over-the-top action sequences like Zack Snyder (the director of 300 and Watchmen). It’s here where most of the criticism of the film fell, and I get that: His vision is not for everyone. But there is some irony in our critical class — who have long lamented the stultifying nature of major studio work and spend their days crying out for more personal vision in big budget big screen productions — shunning Snyder’s oeuvre. The man is nothing if not an auteur: You know you’re watching a Zack Snyder picture the moment you see one.

What is lost in all this stylized violence is the story being told. Or, more specifically, the way in which the story is being told — the almost literary way he weaves together the different planes on which the plot takes place and the ambiguous manner he deals with the film’s “reality.” He also gets at the very heart of storytelling, playing with audience expectations as to who the picture is really “about.” Is this Baby Doll’s story, or the story of her fellow prisoners? We often don’t think about the way in which storytellers pull together the threads of many different lives in order to tell the tale of one central character. We give little thought to the backstories of these side characters — but a bit player in one film is the star of her own production, right?

As I said, Sucker Punch is an interesting failure. It doesn’t quite work — for all Snyder tries, the different planes of reality of the film never quite gel and the perspective shift at the end feels forced. And there’s one thing I do find a little worrying: Snyder is recycling images from previous films here. A propane tank is used as a bomb at one point — a trick we saw in Dawn of the Dead. The funeral of Baby Doll’s mother feels awfully similar to the Comedian’s funeral in Watchmen.

Still, I’ll take an interesting failure over another cookie cutter action flick any day of the week. It’s one reason I’m so excited for the Snyder-directed, Christopher Nolan-produced Superman. I’ll take a hyperkinetic Snyder-Supes doing intergalactic battle over a morose Bryan Singer-Supes whinging on about Lois Lane and Lex Luthor any day of the week.

*It’s worth taking a moment to consider how powerful this sequence is. Snyder lives and breathes “Show, don’t tell”: While most directors would draw this out, or simply convey the information via dialogue, he puts together a bravura, six minute sequence with no dialogue set to a remake of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” One of Snyder’s strengths is his mastery of setting the stage: The opening of Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen are similarly stark, powerful, and brilliant.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Fake Herzog December 22, 2011 at 2:01 am

Sonny,

Impressive — I went from zero interest in seeing that movie (despite my love of all things Zack, I just assumed that it was a bad misfire) to checking out that opening sequence and now wanting to see the whole thing. And you are right about his action sequences (I just saw “Immortals” and it is funny how much that movie ripped him off). Let’s hope Michael Shannon as Zod pulls it off.

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SonnyBunch December 22, 2011 at 2:10 am

I should emphasize that those first six minutes are by and far the best, from a purely film-making standpoint. That being said, I do think the whole thing is worth watching. It’s not a great flick, but it certainly has its moments.

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