Sucker Punch is an extremely difficult film to, categorize, summarize or analyze; especially in the space of a relatively short review and by a layperson such as myself - but I will try. I like to think that it is important for me to write reviews of poorly reviewed films, because I typically disagree with the so-called professional film reviewers and therefore I feel I offer a different view of these genre films that I love. However, I find that what really motivates me is that writing these reviews has helped me better understand what I loved, liked or loathed about a film. Is it possible to experience all three of these reactions to a single film? In the case of Sucker Punch, the answer is a definitive yes!
One reason Sucker Punch is a difficult film to categorize is that it is three films telling the same story from three differing realities. There is the “real” world that the film begins with, then the first “imaginary” world that the film segues into and finally the secondary “fantasy” world that the film transitions into. Because the vast majority of Sucker Punch takes place in the “imaginary” world, it would be hard to classify it as a character drama, but this is what it is. I believe that the director and writer of Sucker Punch has used the overlapping imaginary and fantasy worlds to tell a straight up drama that would be more palatable to genre fans. This odd blend of the realistic and the fantastic makes if nearly impossible for the average film fan or film reviewer slot Sucker Punch into a neat category. However, I do think that it works as a fantasy film as well, for reasons I hope to make clear in the course of this review.
I will try to summarize the plot of Sucker Punch, just so that when I make reference to specific plot points you will have an idea from which point in the film they are from. The film opens with a sequence told entirely without dialogue. A mother dies and her two daughters are emotionally distraught. The older daughter – later to be known as Baby Doll – attempts to console her young sister, but is violently separated from her by their stepfather. The stepfather has learned that the daughters are the sole inheritors of their mother’s fortune and he takes steps to correct his misfortune. The stepfather locks “Baby Doll” in her room, then chases down her younger sister and accidentally kills her. Baby Doll escapes her room, finds a gun and nearly guns down her stepfather, before the police arrest her. The stepfather blames the death of her sister on Baby Doll and has her incarcerated into an insane asylum.
Once Baby Doll is in the asylum, Baby Doll undergoes a series of therapy treatments by Dr. Vera Gorski, whose job it is to assess the proper treatment for the patients. Sensing that Baby Doll’s treatment may result in her eventual release from the asylum, the stepfather pays off the head doctor to have her lobotomized, which will rid him of her threat to his blood money forever. The film flash forwards to the day of Baby Doll’s lobotomy and just as the doctor undergoes the gruesome procedure, Baby Doll’s mind escapes to her first imaginary world… or the film flashes back to the events leading up to Baby Doll’s lobotomy.
The imaginary world that Baby Doll inhabits in her mind is hardly an escape. It appears to be a whore house that uses a nightclub as its cover and caters to rich clients who judge their tryst of chose by their dance for the evening. All the people that inhabit the Asylum reality also inhabit the Nightclub reality. The head doctor is the owner and pimp of the Nightclub-whore house, the therapist is the dance instructor-madam and the four girls that Baby Doll meets in the asylum are the dancer-prostitutes. Also paralleling the Asylum reality is the deadline hanging over Baby Doll of her impending visit by a High Roller that has a habit of making his female companions disappear after he is done with them. Learning that she has five days before the High Roller’s visit, Baby Doll plots to escape the nightclub; enlisting the aid of Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber and Blondie to collect the five items that they need in order to make the escape plan of Baby Doll’s work.
During each one of these items thefts, Baby Doll uses her gift of her dancing to mesmerize the men of the nightclub to distract them, while one of the girls carries out the plan. It is during these hypnotic dances that Baby Doll is transported in her mind’s eye to a different fantasy setting. Each fantasy is world is different from the other and each represents the increasing difficulty of each theft in the imaginary world. Eventually, all the items are collected, but the plan goes horribly awry and Baby Doll is forced to execute her plan in a much more dangerous and haphazard manner.
This fairly detailed synopsis of Sucker Punch only outlines the main plot of the film and does not touch on theme or purpose of the film’s story. I’ll start to try and explain what I thought Sucker Punch’s driving thematic objective was, with the aspect of the film that I loved. The fantasy sequences, which are shown extensively in the trailers and advertisements for the film, are truly a marvel of the imagination! The “map” fantasy sequence has a World War I motif, replete with biplanes, zeppelins and trench warfare. The “fire” sequence is a high fantasy theme, with dragons, armored knights and sword fights. The “knife” sequence is a science fiction looking world, with robots, ray guns and spaceship battles. The “key” sequence utilizes visions from all the other fantasy settings and features Baby Doll’s personal demons in the form of a gigantic warrior. Central to each of these fantasy worlds is the Wise Man, who offers Baby Doll inspirational words before she sets out on each quest. The Wise Man is the only character that has thus far not been seen in the real world and I only point this out because his revelation at the end of the film is one that either works or doesn’t work, depending on your interpretation of the overall meaning of the film. Personally, I loved the visual splendor of these fantasy sequences and I thought that they did an impressive job of amplifying the level of danger in the “imaginary” world setting. They also communicated Baby Doll’s mind set during her dances, showing her need to escape mentally from the reality that she herself had created.
I also liked the imaginary or parallel world that we are led to believe are Baby Doll’s creation during her real world escape plot from the asylum. However, I question if this is indeed the case. Why would Baby Doll envision such a repressive world to inhabit? I think a better explanation is that the entire Nightclub-whorehouse reality is a reverse visual allegory for Baby Doll’s asylum reality and entirely the creation of the filmmaker and not the character of the film. Taken in this light, the horrors that are perpetuated on the women in the nightclub world make much more sense. Why Zack Snyder chooses to add this additional layer to Sucker Punch, I’m not entirely sure. Sometimes artistic choices that make perfect sense to the artist make no sense to anyone but themselves. If art is about communication, then in this case Mr. Snyder has failed to make me understand what the significance of this particular layer to his film is. Still, if nothing else, it does offer a sort of exclamation point to the overall ill treatment of these women in the asylum reality.
Finally, the one aspect of Sucker Punch that I truly loathed was its message at the end. I will not give this away, because I think that if you’ve made your way through this review this far, you should be able to tell that I think Sucker Punch is a film worth watching. I will say that my understanding of Sucker Punch’s overall thematic vision is not one of women’s empowerment – which you might get the impression is the case from its fantasy sequences. I had a definite negative reaction to Baby Doll’s solution to her final tribulation, but this may not be shared by everyone. Sucker Punch does reward a patient viewer with a definitive conclusion; it just may not be the type of climax that everyone will find rewarding or satisfactory. Such was the case for me, but it still did not deter me from appreciating Sucker Punch as a whole or from recommending it to someone who doesn’t mind a difficult and dark journey with a less-than-uplifting finale. You will definitely not be Sucker Punched by Sucker Punch.