Is it 300 in a 1960s insane asylum? Is it Watchmen without the deconstruction? Is it what we can expect from Superman Begins? Not really. Zack Snyder’s latest film, Sucker Punch, is much more about subtlety than one might think.
From the previews, you might get the sense that Sucker Punch is simply a fantasy/action delusion of an escape from a mental institution. Instead, it’s a story of self and acceptance, survival and determination, especially when you don’t count the action scenes.
Before I go any further, go see this on the big screen. If you like to be impressed visually, Sucker Punch is a movie that will do that. You will see things that are small presented as though they are small. You will see large monstrosities and creations and stare upward in wonder. You will even see a katana used properly in a live-action film! No clang-clang for Babydoll, she knows how to use Japanese Steel.
As I said, Sucker Punch isn’t about the action sequences. Those are grand in spectacle and design and say a lot about the characters, so much that we learn the most about Babydoll (Emily Browning) from these sequences. The depth of character comes from the other girls in her cadre, most notably from the sisters Rocket (Jena Malone) and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish). In my opinion, Sucker Punch functions as a duel of delusions, not in conflict like in Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, but as a way to detail how dominant personalities can shape how others see the world and how far one will go to accept the hand fate has dealt them.
There’s a story here about how a group of girls are going to try to escape a mental institution under dire circumstances. You won’t really see this story, though you’ll get close in the nightclub/brothel. Sucker Punch doesn’t play fair in this regard. If Snyder let the movie play fair, it would shift into a hard R and be much darker, depressing, and bleak. Instead, Snyder plays with perceptions and reality, shifting from a gritty brothel/mental institution to a glamorous brothel/nightclub and ultimately into the pure action warzones you see in the previews. This makes Sucker Punch properly a PG-13 movie instead of a movie forced into the most profitable rating.
So much of this movie plays off Snyder’s skill as a visual storyteller. With few, almost no words, Snyder uses the pre-title sequence to give a solid introduction of Babydoll, establish the plot of the film and Babydoll’s character journey.
This is not a kind movie to its characters. There is the constant threat of choppy, archaic lobotimization. There are the slave-like levels of treatment the girls have to endure. There is the implied, but never seen, repeated rape of almost every protagonist. The level of overt concealment Zack Snyder manages is staggering and shows that he’s an ambitious director in his own right, he is a true storyteller in a visual medium.
I would be selling Sucker Punch short if I didn’t mention Scott Glenn. He plays The Wise Man, but that term feel totally inaccurate, aside from his Toshiro Mifune-like introduction. He exists wholly in the hyper-fantastic warzone, but his intent is rarely warlike. His advice is always sound and enlightening. Should one follow the path he sets forth, they will never be wanting in their life. The core question of his first scene (“What is it that you seek?”) defines, not only the fantasy realm he exists within, but also the entire film on every level. He is always ready to inspire the girls, tell them what they need to know, and set them out on their journey. It is a joy to see Glenn whenever he is on screen, enough that I always wanted to see more of him, though I have a theory (which I will not share here) on why he is not shown elsewhere.
In short, if you would like to watch something that breaks conventions and tries to entertain you in ways you will never expect, watch Sucker Punch. It is a subtle fight within and without the constrains of proper sanity.