Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mainstream Fetish: The Misogyny Of Sucker Punch [Review This Again]

The Good: Moments of direction, One or two performances
The Bad: Problematic plot, Constantly unsettling tone, Lack of distinct or intriguing characters, Most of the acting, Poor editing, Unrelenting misogyny in the writing
The Basics: Sucker Punch twists a disturbing creepy setting and a horrible personal tragedy into a masturbatory visual fantasy that falls utterly flat.

[There is a big meme in the art community going around now called "Draw This Again." In the meme, artists illustrate how they have grown in their chosen medium by putting side-by-side pictures of art they created in the past and now. My wife had the great idea that I should do something similar with my reviewing. So, for 2017, I will be posting occasional "Review This Again" reviews, where I revisit subjects I had previously reviewed and review them again, through a lens of increased age, more experience, and - for some - greater familiarity with the subject. This review is one such review, where I am re-experiencing Sucker Punch after many years, devoid of the hype that surrounded the movie and with more experience as both a reviewer and one who has seen more works by co-writer and director Zack Snyder. The film was originally reviewed here!]

My wife and I recently began watching the television series American Gods and it did not take long into the series before I found myself looking at actress Emily Browning, who plays Laura Moon in American Gods, and thinking that she looked somewhat familiar. The "somewhat" became clear the moment I realized that she was the same actress who played the lead in Sucker Punch; with only six or seven years between the first season of American Gods and Sucker Punch, Emily Browning's appearance did not significantly change. Instead, the reason it took me so long to identify the actress on American Gods was that she had more than three expressions on the television show. In Sucker Punch, Emily Browning's performance is unfortunately limited to staring blankly, expressing anguish, and screaming defiantly.

Sucker Punch is one of those films I recall being very excited about, swept up at the time in the promotions for it, and then incredibly disappointed by it when I rushed out to see it in the theater. My enthusiasm for the film was originally sparked by how much I enjoyed Zack Snyder's cinematic rendition of Watchmen (reviewed here!), but when I watched Sucker Punch, I recalled only feeling like it was a half-assed rewrite of Brazil (reviewed here!). But, seeing Emily Browning episode after episode on American Gods, I felt like perhaps I had misjudged Sucker Punch and I decided to watch Sucker Punch again.

I was wrong about Sucker Punch in my initial assessment.

Sucker Punch is worse than it initially appeared; on many levels. I have often been called a tough reviewer, one who is much harsher in evaluating films than many other reviewers. When it came to Sucker Punch, though, I quickly discovered in watching the movie again that I was not nearly stringent enough in my standards.

Watching Sucker Punch again, this time on a smaller screen, the film's flaws are far more glaring. While the movie initially appeared to be visually-spectacular, one of the things that caught me in watching Sucker Punch again was how unfortunately choppy much of the editing was. Given that I alternated between utterly bored by and appropriately horrified by the story, the fact that Sucker Punch cannot be relied upon to be considered even a visual masterpiece made the film an utter disappointment.

Sucker Punch is a film that attempts to be clever, but quickly degenerates into visual garbage. The movie focuses on a young woman who is not even given a proper name in the film. "Babydoll" is only given that name when she is committed to an insane asylum, as part of her fantasy sequence where she tries to escape the horrors of her new reality. Sucker Punch opens with Babydoll's mother dying, her step father getting custody of her and her sister and her mother's will granting everything to Babydoll and her sister. When their step father advances upon Babydoll to rape her, she resists, but in barricading herself away from him, she leaves her sister vulnerable to his attack. While the stepfather assaults her sister, Babydoll recovers his gun and breaks into her sister's room. There, she tries to kill her stepfather, but accidentally kills her sister. Babydoll is in shock when her stepfather has her committed to an insane asylum in Vermont where he bribes the orderly, Blue Jones, to have Babydoll lobotomized.

Five days into her stay in the asylum, Babydoll is set to be lobotomized against her will. And attentive viewers will notice that the film is pretty much over at that point. What follows this opening set-up is Babydoll having fantasies of the asylum being a very different place and within that dream, she imagines escape fantasies involving herself and four other inmates of the asylum.

Sucker Punch is a dark set up for absolute narrative garbage. The entire film is established as a cheap reversal flick where only the least-observant audience will notice that the narrator completely shifts as Babydoll transitions from the lobotomy chair to the stage within a brothel nightclub. The thing is, as unsophisticated as that is, Sucker Punch becomes even more clumsy as it nears its climax. One of the other patients at the asylum, Sweet Pea, becomes the film's protagonist in the film's final moments and that makes Sucker Punch one giant narrative tense slip, where its characters and dreams within a dream make no rational sense.

Co-writer Zack Snyder hopes viewers will not notice that the film does not make rational sense as Babydoll is given the role of apparent protagonist when she is constantly a victim and damsel in distress . . . always bailed out by men. For sure, Babydoll and her comrades have grand fantasy sequences where they slaughter steampunk zombies, orcs, dragons, samurai warriors, and twisted men, but it is hard to ignore two things: 1. those sequences are supposed to be analogies for training as the young women learn to work together and fight alongside each other (which makes no sense because in the fantasies, they are entirely proficient in every way) and 2. the sequences are fantasies for Babydoll escaping her reality . . . which is supposed to be her dancing in such a sexy and seductive way and objectifying herself that it distracts all of the men around her.

One of the fundamental issues with Sucker Punch is that it acknowledges its own sickness early on, but does nothing to fix it. Sweet Pea's proper introduction to Sucker Punch is the young woman, playing Babydoll in a play, rejecting the premise of sexualizing a lobotomy victim. Sweet Pea wants better material than a rape fantasy to portray and that is, sadly, the last moment where a woman is given an opportunity in Sucker Punch to stand up for herself and stand up against the patriarchy in a coherent way.

So, what follows are five chicks running around in short skirts, dancewear, tight tops, underwear, stockings, Hot Topic fetishwear, etc. shooting guns, running, and swinging swords when they are not in a more mundane fantasy where they are being constantly assaulted, exploited or menaced by men within the asylum/club.

The real peak of suckitude (it's hard to take Sucker Punch seriously, much less evaluating it like it deserves a high level of diction to deconstruct) is that with the writing being so terrible, only two performers are truly allowed to break out and show genuine range . . . and they are both men. Sucker Punch might have ass-kicking women on screen, but the female characters are monolithic and hard to empathize with. To be clear, it is easy to be horrified by Babydoll's abuse and her accidental killing of her sister. But that's over in the first ten minutes and the rest of the movie has Emily Browning running around wearing very little, performing with a blank expression for Zack Snyder's elaborate rape fantasy. Browning, Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung are given surprisingly little to do as the female characters other than cosplay and run around.

So, it is somewhat surprising when Oscar Isaac and Scott Glenn steal Sucker Punch. Glenn plays the sensei character who actually has a chance to smile in his final scene and play (no matter how nonsensical the leap is) a character who is genuinely good in a dark mess of a film. At the other end of the spectrum is Oscar Isaac. Isaac portrays Blue Jones with constant menace and a skeevie quality that is unsettling to watch. There is not a hint of the jubilation he portrayed as Poe Dameron in The Force Awakens (reviewed here!) or his innate charisma. Instead, Isaac is a thoroughly despicable villain in Sucker Punch and he rides the tone of constant menace and misogynistic malice from beginning to end.

Ultimately, Sucker Punch is a mess and on the small screen, it becomes even more obvious how bad the film's content actually is. The sound for Sucker Punch cranks up the music and plummets for the dialogue. Sadly, even if one watches Sucker Punch with the volume muted, it is no better a film. Sucker Punch could be called "empowering to women" only as tongue in cheek; Sweet Pea nails it early on - Sucker Punch is a sick fantasy wherein young women at their most vulnerable are subjugated, robbed of their identity and ultimately given an entirely irrational narrative in place of an authentic story.

For other works with Jamie Chung, please check out my reviews of:
Flock Of Dudes
Big Hero 6
The Hangover Part III
The Hangover Part II
I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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