Bright Lights Film Journal

Deconstructing Sucker Punch

Like Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., Christopher Nolan’s Inception, or Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch invites the viewer to deconstruct a narrative puzzle – nested realities, stories embedded within stories – that in Snyder’s case allows him to present a series of meticulously rendered alternate worlds.

As anybody who has seen or read about the film knows, there are three principal levels:

1) THE MENTAL INSTITUTE. Approximate time frame: late ’50s. Because this is the first world we see, viewers are led to believe that it is “reality.” It is the place to which the evil stepfather of Babydoll (Emily Browning) sends her after she accidentally shoots her younger sister while trying to protect the girl from her stepfather’s sexual abuse. Here she meets an apparently benevolent psychiatrist, Dr. Borski (Carla Gugino), a not-so-benevolent orderly, Blue (Oscar Isaac), and the four female mental patients who become her “teammates” as she attempts to escape.

2) THE DANCEHALL/BROTHEL. This is the level to which Babydoll apparently retreats when threatened with a lobotomy by another doctor (a cameo by Mad Men‘s John Hamm). Dr. Gorski becomes Madame Gorski, a dancemistress; Blue, the orderly, becomes the pimp who runs the place; and the mental patients become enslaved dancer/prostitutes. As dancer/prostitutes, the goal of the five girls remains the same – to escape. When Babydoll starts to dance, everybody who watches her becomes entranced, and we shift to another level of reality:


Here, the five patients/prostitutes become a team of empowered warrior women. The team members are, from left to right, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her little sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Babydoll (Browning), the absurdly named Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). The Charlie who leads and advises these Angels — indeed, the only decent male we see in the film — is an archetypal Wise Man played by Scott Glenn (center).

Not that there’s anyone in the film who isn’t essentially an archetype. And the Videogame Fantasy level is actually four successive fantasy worlds: “Feudal Warriors” (samourai-era Japan with fantasy elements); “The Trenches” (World War I-era with sci-fi elements); “Medieval Dragon” (World War II-era with Lord of the Rings elements); and “Distant Planet” (space opera). However, all the worlds are interconnected — the weapons the Wise Man gives to Babydoll in the “Feudal Warriors” episode are the weapons she uses in the three successive episodes, and when someone gets killed at the Dancehall/Brothel level, she is also killed within the simultaneously occurring Videogame Fantasy level. (WARNING:  if you thought *that* was a SPOILER, you might encounter several more in the paragraphs to come.)

Keeping the multi-levelled story straight is more than enough to keep the audience preoccupied on a first viewing. Successive viewings beg the question, “Just whose story is it we are watching?”

It’s Babydoll’s Story 

Almost all of what we see on a first viewing cues us to believe that we are watching Babydoll’s story. She is the first character we see onscreen, sitting on a bed. All the characters she meets at the Mental Institute level are later reconfigured as characters within the Dancehall/Brothel level, e.g., the stepfather who delivers her to the mental institute is reconfigured as a priest who delivers her to the brothel from an orphanage. We move from the Dancehall/Brothel level to the Videogame Fantasy level whenever Babydoll starts to dance (we never actually see her dancing). The first transition from the Mental Institute to Dancehall/Brothel occurs just as Babydoll is about to be lobotomized — suggesting that everything happening afterwards might be an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge-type fantasy that flashes through Babydoll’s mind in the split second before she loses consciousness.

It’s Sweet Pea’s Story

 The film begins with an unidentified female narrator telling us, “Everyone has an angel . . . . We can’t know what form they’ll take. One day, old man. Next day, little girl . . . .”

On a second viewing, we recognize the narrator’s voice as that of Sweet Pea. So it’s Sweet Pea who is, in fact, telling the story, and therefore what we see on the screen must be things the way Sweet Pea remembers or imagines them. (We are still seeing things from the viewpoint of a mental patient, but not the mental patient we originally thought.) Reinforcing this interpretation of the film, the very first thing we see, before we see any of the characters, is a theater stage with a curtain that opens to reveal Babydoll sitting on her bed. The stage and curtain is a framing device establishing that we are watching Babydoll from somewhere outside, i.e., from Sweet Pea’s imagination, and the narration implies that Babydoll is Sweet Pea’s “angel.” In this respect, Sucker Punch borrows from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, another story about a mental institute, in which McMurphy, who inspires the other patients, is the apparent hero (paralleling Babydoll), but the real hero is the Chief, the one who “makes it” (paralleling Sweet Pea). When we first meet Sweet Pea in the mental institute, she too is sitting on a bed on a stage – just like Babydoll in the opening scene – and, just like Babydoll in the opening scene, Sweet Pea’s principal concern throughout the movie is to protect her little sister. All of which suggests that for Sweet Pea, Babydoll might be some kind of anima or fantasy projection, an idealized alter ego of Sweet Pea, herself. Finally and most persuasively, there is the figure of the Wise Man who appears in all of the Videogame Fantasies but who in “real life” Babydoll has never met.  However, Sweet Pea meets him in the film’s final “real life” scene. Which seems like definitive proof that it is Sweet Pea’s story we have been watching all along. On the other hand:

It’s Everybody’s Story

Several issues remain unresolved. If the story is taking place in the 1950s, how come the patients’ warrior women fantasies look like videogames from the ’90s and 2000s? How come the music that Dr. or Madame Borski plays on her late ’50s tape recorder (the soundtrack to the fantasies) consists of pop tunes from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s? How come the warrior women are costumed like erotic fantasy figures in a Japanese anime?  Why or even how would a woman living in 1950s America imagine herself in this way?

One hint arrives in the form of a movie poster seen on the Dancehall/Brothel’s dressing room wall, a 1949 Doris Day musical entitled My Dream is Yours. The movie itself is not significant, but its title is. It suggests that what we are watching is some kind of shared dream.

Sweet Pea’s concluding voiceover clarifies matters as much as they are ever going to be clarified: “Who honors those we love with the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time sings that we’ll never die? . . . . Who chains us? And who holds the key that can set us free? It’s you. You have all the weapons you need . . . .”

In short, *you* are the protagonist of this movie.  Its story is yours. You might not be an attractive 20-something female confined to a mental institute, but like those women, you want to be “free.” The archetypal fantasies in the film are part of the contemporary consciousness *you* share with everyone else. The movie’s meretricious elements — the girls in skimpy outfits, the giant robots, the guns, the explosions — are there because those are the things that *you* want to see. It follows that *you* made this movie. 

How did you like it?

Addendum 7/8/11:  The release of John Carpenter’s The Ward this weekend reminds me that Sucker Punch is just one in a long line of what the New York Times refers to as “looney bin films,” a cinematic subgenre that goes all the way back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).  Films in this subgenre that seem to have influenced Sucker Punch include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (discussed above), Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), and Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963). From Shutter Island, Sucker Punch borrows the good psychiatrist/bad psychiatrist dichotomy — one doctor who is against lobotomies (Ben Kingsley/Carla Gugino) vs. another doctor who favors them (Max von Sydow/John Hamm). From Shock Corridor, Sucker Punch borrows not only the asylum setting and the plot device that while in the asylum the protagonist has to accomplish certain tasks (in Sucker Punch, Emily Browning has to gather certain objects, just as in Shock Corridor, Peter Breck has to find out “who killed Sloane in the the kitchen”), but also, surprisingly, the girls’ dressing room setting (in Sucker Punch, the dressing room of the Dancehall/Brothel; in Shock Corridor, the dressing room of the club where Constance Towers’s character works as a stripper). Combining strippers and insane asylums is an interesting idea, but Fuller got there first.

Sucker Punch is also a women in wonderland story. In 2009, I wrote a series of posts on that concept which you can access by clicking the women in wonderland tag below.