Our Rating: 3 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Critics hate this movie but audiences love it. I can understand the split. You're either going to get it or you're not; there really is no middle ground.
When her mother's death leaves she and her sister the sole heirs to the family fortune, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) has her world turned upside-down. Her evil stepfather has murdered her sister and set her up to take the fall, blaming it on a mental breakdown. Enlisted in this plot is the manager of the local asylum (Oscar Isaac), who agrees to forge the signature of the resident psychologist (Carla Gugino) on her medial papers and have her lobotomized in five days. Desperate to escape, Baby Doll retreats into a world in her head that will allow her to escape -- with the assistance of her friends, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jenna Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). In order to find freedom, she must find and use five items -- but it is more dangerous to plot an escape than even she realizes.
If Inception was a mind-bender, Sucker Punch takes it to the next level. It assumes its audience is smart enough to follow it and explore more fully the symbolism, of which there is a large amount, particularly if you want to explore the heroine's state of mind, which is where the majority of the story takes place (in three realities -- the real one, her projection of reality, and a dream world in which her battles become actualized). This method of storytelling can be complicated and hard to follow if you are not accustomed to it, and left some members of my audience scratching their heads while others walked out saying, "that was crazy good!" I had mixed feelings about it for a variety of reasons, but first will say that in terms of filmmaking, I was very impressed. I loved the "look" of the film, with the washed out colors, and the first ten minutes is sheer brilliance -- all without a word of dialogue. It is a unique approach to the material the overall presentation is striking, with a lot of detail paid to costumes, backgrounds, and the aura of the asylum.
The cast is solid even if the material is not that deep -- it conveys all the right emotions but is at times a little sketchy in its character development; it relies more on visuals than heart, although I must say the twist at the end is both surprising and touching. It certainly doesn't conclude as we expect and that leads me to also think that a lot of audience members didn't like it because it was not your typical ending. Having said that, where would a more conservative audience stand with this one? Probably nowhere close -- Baby Doll's perception of reality is that the asylum is a brothel where the girls dance to please men and are routinely taken advantage of and exploited (none of which we actually see, other than a few girls perched on men's laps). This presumably is meant to express her state of mind -- her belief that violation of the mind is a violation of the body also, as well as to re-assign the individuals in the asylum new "positions" (the psychologist an abused madam, the manager a mustache-twirling villain, etc).
As a result, in her mind the girls are all provocatively clad -- and this means they spend the vast majority of the movie in skimpy outfits, whether fighting monsters or walking the halls. Fishnets, short skirts, cleavage-bearing tops and lingerie are on display. Conversation alludes to girls being taken advantage of and/or virginity being threatened; the mild implication in the opening scene is that her stepfather may be sexually abusing she and her sister. Baby Doll likes to "dance" to distract men (presumably, an extremely provocative striptease -- but we never see it; each time, she enters her imagination and emerges a monster-slayer). Twice, girls are almost assaulted, both times including being smacked around and forced down on furniture (or the floor); each time, they get away. Language is mild for the most part but includes two abuses of Jesus' name, a GD, and a handful of uses of s**t. Violence ranges from stylized action sequences in which the girls slash their way through adversaries (or gun them down) -- usually robots, orcs, or Steampunk Nazis -- to women being slapped, punched, and thrown around the asylum. One girl is knifed; two are shot in the head (off screen).
On one hand, I thought it was a very brave film in its choice to be controversial -- and I liked the revelation toward the end, even if at the same time it was shocking. But there are two underlining messages here, one of them positive in that saving someone else is the greatest gift you can give someone (the narrator credits it to divine intervention), and the other one disconcerting in how it exploits women. Dress these girls up, slap machine guns in their hands, and push them out of a CGI chopper and it doesn't change the fact that they are still dressed in a manner that is all about exciting men. It's not sexual liberation, it's cheap titillation. And given how much of a mind-twister this storyline is, that's a shame.