Sucker Punch

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Everyone has an angel, a guardian who watches over us.
We can’t know what form they’ll take.
One day: old man. Next day: little girl.
But don’t let appearances fool you. They can be as fierce as any dragon.
Yet, they’re not here to fight our battles, but to whisper from our heart.
Reminding that it’s us – it’s everyone of us –
Who holds the power over the worlds we create.

The Story Within the Story

How does a girl become an undercover agent able to fell giants and, when supported by her sisters, able to topple clock-work armies composed of rotting flesh?

This is the question at the heart of Sucker Punch, a film deeply misunderstood by critics and fans alike. For the story about her origins, provided in the film’s opening sequence, is nothing other than a tale retold, evident in the lights, the curtains, and the set that frames the stage. And as we follow the girl from the events of a dark and stormy night to her institutionalization, we soon find her standing face-to-face with someone else acting out her story on a stage musty and worn: as if the other was an older version of herself seeking answers by reaching back through the mists of time.

The words from the Polish therapist directing the performance seems to confirm this, as if the film’s protagonist were a treasured memory holding the secret to how she came to be a patient locked up in an asylum for the mentally insane.

I’m going to start your music now.
You’re safe. It’s all safe. Now relax and just let go.
It’s like we talk about: You control this world.
Let the pain go. Let the hurt go. Let the guilt go.
What you’re imagining right now, that world you control?
That place can be as real as any pain.

Who Conjured Whom 1 Who Conjured Whom 2

As each looks to the other, it’s not clear what they’re feeling other than the eeriness that must come from looking at oneself across the fabric of time. The younger seeing the other (looking older but not necessarily any the wiser) reenact the story that brought her to this awful place, while the older sees the girl who’s just been declared a danger to others by a step-father intent on claiming an inheritance that wasn’t his to take.

If these are different versions the same girl – one fighting against the lobotomy that’s imminent, the other protesting the gruesomeness of having to reenact that fate – then it makes sense that their story would come to an end when one gives up her place for the other, reversing the fate to which both had been condemned. That act of substitution had already been foretold, "a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory," as the mystery that would open the gates to Freedom.

Which might be why the film’s narrator speaks of angels and demons and their role in the battles that we fight, suggesting that we need not resign ourselves to some preordained fate. Suggesting that the rumors of redemption are true, but only after we’ve burned through our karma, for only then does our destiny dare show its face.

We can deny our angels exist, convince ourselves they can’t be real.
But they show up anyway, at strange places and strange times.
They can speak through any character we can imagine.
They’ll shout through demons if they have to.
Daring us – challenging us – to fight.

A Fate Already Sealed

IF all of this is true, it makes sense that the older would stop the performance, just as the straps were secured and the needle poised to do its work. For what kind of "therapeutic" purpose is served in revisiting such an awful event? What good could possibly come of that?

And with this protest – the pivot around which this story unfolds – the entire setting will change, as if her declaration gives voice to a different understanding of where she is and how things came to be. For when the camera turns around, a different scene emerges: no longer a dark and musty institution but, instead, a swanky Club for Men. And the one lodging her protest is the star of the show.

This is a joke, right?
Don’t you get the point of this? It’s to turn people on.
I get the sexy little schoolgirl.
I even get the helpless mental patient, right? That can be hot.
But what is this? Lobotomized vegetable?
How about something a little more commercial for God’s sake?

Clearly, at least from her point of view, the therapist’s interest in replaying the past was insufficient to meet its task. Too appalling to offer any hope of salvation, more a death sentence than anything else. So, instead, we are invited into a world untainted by the presumption of illness or the imperative of cure. And it’s with this switch that we are introduced to another side of her experience, one not defined by the gloom of everything that came before.

The Swanky Club for Men

Instead, we are treated to the spectacle of desire, where men are the patrons and women are the prize (or is it the other way around … or perhaps even both). In this Club for Men, each figure in the asylum acquires a new name and an elevation in status: key among these are the lowly orderly, now known as Blue, the owner of the swanky establishment, and the Polish therapist, no longer known as a doctor but as Madame Gorski, instead.

In keeping with this theme, the newcomer acquires a nickname, as well: Baby Doll. A new recruit still unschooled in the workings of the Club and, as such, requiring tutelage in the ways of that world. And as she’s given a tour, the expectations to which she’ll be held become especially clear. And troubling.

Blue owns the club and we, my dear, are the main attractions.
The club’s a front for his business: guns, gambling, medication, special favors.
He brings in his clients and we gotta make them feel … you know, "special."
..
Everybody gets a dance, a routine.
We practice it, practice it, practice it, and the men come to watch us perform.
And if they like what they see … well, that’s why we dance.

It’s a fate with which she’s none too happy, particularly since she’s being saved for a meeting with the High Roller himself (i.e., her lobotomy). So, in effect, what this alternative universe provides us is a story told in reverse, not anchored in the trauma of the past but framed by lights and dancing, instead. It’s as if her pain had been obliterated or repressed, making way for a gilded cage: a prison from which only the uninitiated could help find a way to escape.

Only a girl like Baby Doll holds the key to escape, someone who finds the Club for Men overwhelming and strange. One who’s not been tutored in its secrets, precisely because she comes from another place. What one author has described as the Chamber of Grace.

The Wise Man

What’s more, when Baby Doll dances, she has access to another world far beyond the walls of the asylum and the Club for Men. Another dimension. And it’s during her first trip to this place that she meets the Wise Man so pivotal in her journey and the battles she fights, as if she’s created him from her imagination, built from thin air. And yet, because she meets him in her mind, he’s as real and vital as anything else, particularly since he provides the guidance so necessary for her escape.

At first, Sweet Pea, will remain staunchly unimpressed, preferring her own style of dancing: more personal and expressive of herself as a human being. For her, the intensity of Baby Doll is off-putting, too visceral for her tastes. But when she learns that the vigor reflects nothing other than the desire for freedom, she’s forced to listen, knowing that such inspiration comes but once in a lifetime, if at all.

Which is how the weapons and information Baby Doll acquires through her visions come to influence the Club in which she’s imprisoned, along with the other girls. First, in learning how to defend herself and, later, in gathering what’s necessary for their escape: a map, a fire, a knife, and a key. The fifth item – the mystery – remains unnamed, precisely since only she can discover its truth.

Sisters

Sweet Pea’s ambivalence was not entirely due to their differing philosophies about dance. In this Club for Men, she is also the protector of her little sister, although here, they look more like Twins. The two left home after Rocket ran away, haunted by something she did, wishing it could somehow be undone. And ever since then, it was Sweet Pea who watched over her, making sure she was safe.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Sweet Pea’s reluctance is overcome when Rocket describes how Baby Doll saved her from the Cook, of how, quite fearlessly, the tiny newcomer had held a knife to his throat. For Sweet Pea, it’s a reminder that she can’t always be there for her sister, and the danger of being lulled into a false sense of safety: only escape will provide the Freedom they want.

The other members of this blonde alliance, designated by their names rather than the color of their hair, also form a pair – Blondie and Amber – foreigners in more ways than one. And yet, as honorary members of this group, they too will play a crucial role, not least of all when it comes to the battles that are fought once they enter the imagination of their leader, Baby Doll.

The Sisterhood

Should we have any doubt about the nature of the relationship between these girls, the film’s director provides us with mirrors that frame their encounters with one another, whether in their rooms for rehearsal or for dressing. Less a symbol of vanity than a sign of something else, as if there were some sort of calibration we’ve been allowed to see. As much an alignment with oneself as with the other.

Of all the girls, it’s Baby Doll and Rocket who form the closest bond, as if there were something they share in common. As if the story with which the film began – the stormy night ending in more than a single death – was not foreign to Rocket although, in her own version of events, she ran away from an intolerable secret that couldn’t be undone.

Because Rocket and her sister Sweet Pea don’t always agree, the mirrors reflecting their conversations denote a different sort of calibration, as if weighing the costs and benefits of their plan for escape, one sister arguing with the other. But the enthusiasm with which all the girls eventually embrace Baby Doll and her strategy indicates the outcome of this process, as well as their desire to fight the imprints they’ve received – ancient wounds – that have left them in this place.

One Day Old Man. Next Day Little Girl

It’s this group of five, under the tutelage of the Wise Man, that wages battle as Baby Doll dances, confronting the enemies with which they’re faced. And as their first mission begins, they enter a war already in progress, substituting for an army too weary to fight. As if, without the girls’ alliance, their mission against the Nazis was already lost.

As many reviewers have noted, each of these trips into the imagination is like a music video, little to no dialogue with music blaring. But we shouldn’t allow this to dismiss their message, for each is a carefully constructed portrait of what happens in the course of soul retrieval: the arduous journey that takes Baby Doll and her companions to the bowels of the earth and the corners of the sky. Neither are the music and lyrics we hear irrelevant for that task.

The costumes they wear also speak to the nature of their battle and the places from where they’ve come: the three blondes (Baby Doll and the Twins) wearing blackened versions of female archetypes – schoolgirl, nurse, and long-suffering martyr – as if their intent was to put them to rest; whereas the others (the Wise Man and the two honorary blondes) wear British uniforms, as if they were somehow related to the army too weary to fight.

sucker_punch_banner

As was amply displayed in the film’s promotional materials, this team does battle against an army composed of steel and rotting flesh, as if the effort to rewrite their fate was blocked by hordes of men already in the process of decay. And yet, as the Wise Man tells them, they need not feel badly about killing: the enemy reanimates the fallen through the use of clockwork and steam, so they’re already dead.

To aid in this battle, the team is provided a strange apparatus: a bunny mecha that towers over them, a mascot and reminder of what was taken and lost. What once served as a child’s blankie now marked by emblems (unseen here) of a different sort, badges for the kind of honor they defend and what it is they fight: a pair of cherries on the left and a human skull on the right.

During the course of their fighting, not unlike a videogame in which the successful contestant moves from one level to the next, this technology will evolve, at first learning how to take to the air and, later, becoming something else. As if in the course of their fighting, the technology used by their enemy was being made their own. Initially, a clunky mecha weighed down by its size and weight, later, an antique bomber from the Second World War and, finally, a helicopter able maneuver as if it owned the sky.

The Three Giants

It’s in this place – this other dimension – that the girls’ alliance wrests the items necessary for their freedom, but it was Baby Doll who first learned the means for acquiring them and the art of self-defense. For immediately after receiving the Wise Man’s instructions, three giant samurai had appeared in the court-yard blocking her way to the gate, as if the Wise Man had put him there, challenging the girl to fight.

Like the three (blackened) uniforms worn by the girls, these three also form a trio of archetypes, in this case male: one with a nose way to large for his head, another whose machine-gun fire threatens to annihilate, and the last so laden by armor it’s impossible to see his face. Each of these will define the next three battles on which Baby Doll embarks with her sisters: the commandant determined to close of her means for escape, a dragon whose weapon is a blazing fire, and an army of robotic machines that have no face.

The court-yard in which Baby Doll first confronted, and defeated, the giant samurai also makes more than one appearance, weaving its way through her visions inside and outside the Club for Men. In each case, there will be armies blocking the exit gate, as if this very structure – and the obstacles put in their way – pointed to the very nature of the battle they fight, as well as their means for escape.

Through Baby Doll's Eyes

Just as Baby Doll recruited the "Wise Man," Sweet Pea recruited Baby Doll. For it’s only from the eyes of a girl still in pigtails that she could see the Club for Men as a different place. For even while she’s being trained to dance, Baby Doll remains the kind of girl who’d bolt should anyone try anything and why she was so quick to come to Rocket’s defense. So, while her history may bear similarities with the other girls, she had yet to become immune to what they had already learned to accept.

Such is the power of accessing one from the Chamber of Grace, one untouched by the "realities" we come to tolerate. For such acceptance reflects the kind of blind-spot that afflicts those forced to defend themselves way too early, where a modicum of safety is achieved at too great a personal cost, often unaware that the terms of their existence can be changed.

Such is the fate of the abandoned and forgotten who are obligated to come to terms with a world that has failed to protect them. It’s also what makes them among the world’s greatest dreamers (and dancers). If they’re able to rise to the challenge, they can also become the kind of warriors capable of changing the fabric of fate.

Paradise Road

The same could be said of the boy we see twice during the course of this story, his presence explained. First, on the battlefield, among an army too exhausted to fight and, later, just as Sweet Pea readies herself for freedom. It’s almost as if there were another transformation taking place while the girls’ were caught in battle. And as he disappears from view, the Wise Man will reappear, no longer a figure in Baby Doll’s head but an actual presence outside the prison she’s just escaped.

And as this part of her journey comes to a close, we’ll hear Sweet Pea’s voiceover once again, providing the answer to the riddle with which the film began, an homage to the Polish doctor that had first taught Baby Doll to dance.

The mystery of whose story it will be, of who draws the curtain …
Who is it that chooses the steps in the dance?
Who drives us mad? Lashes us with whips?
And crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible?
Who is it that does all these things?
..
It’s you. You have all the weapons you need.
Now fight!

The words are meant as encouragement for all of us, all the more necessary due to price that must be paid before freedom can be gained. In Sweet Pea’s case, the sisterly alliance now reduced to one: Baby Doll’s sacrifice as much a reenactment of Sweet Pea’s history as the realization that allows her to escape.

Paradise has acquired many definitions over the years, the very idea of heaven on earth. For Baby Doll it was the opportunity to free Sweet Pea from the fate that left her sister dead, the name on a bottle used to destroy that place of confinement: a closet, a prison, a tomb. So, as Sweet Pea rides the bus from Hartford toward the horizon, we’ll see the other face of that Paradise, as much about their shared achievement as what is still to come.

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~ by mistified on June 28, 2011.

One Response to “Sucker Punch”

  1. this is just brilliant.

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