I just finished watched Sucker Punch and all I can say is that this is a deeply sad film that’s left me full of anxiety. I think, perhaps, this is the reason that the film got such awful reviews. A “sucker punch” is a dirty and devious blow that comes unexpectedly when one isn’t looking. If there’s someone that’s sucker punched in this film, I believe it’s the audience. While I don’t think the film is entirely successful (I wonder if the producers didn’t get in the way of what the writings were aiming for by modifying the ending), it does come close. Basically I think the film is critiquing Hollywood’s fetishized fantasies of both women and our ability to triumph over terrible situations. The bulk of the film is filled with scantily clad schoolgirls bearing guns and samurai swords that are able to handily dispatch anything that comes their way. These sequences are portrayed like a video game (and this is significant, I think) where the girls must fight off various foes (zombies, nazis, robots, dragons, etc) to attain their objective.
If this were all there were to the film I would agree with the reviews, noting that while the film is visually stunning it is largely empty and disparaging of women through highly fetishized masculine fantasies or the female warrior figure. Yet the film is bookended between two very different sequences, outside the world of the young woman’s fantasy, that are very different and that, I believe, make the film work. In the initial scenes the heroine accidentally shoots her younger sister while trying to protect her from her step father who is trying to sexually assault her. Her step father takes her to an insane asylum and makes an arrangement with a corrupt orderly to have her lobotomized so she won’t be able to relate the events that led up to the death of her sister. It is at this point that, heeding the words of one of the psychiatrists, she escapes into a world of fantasy during the interval between her admission to the hospital and the point at which she is to be lobotomized.
I won’t ruin the ending, but it is incredibly bleak and upsetting and returns from the world of fantasy to her actual circumstances. It is these dark bookends, I think, that both make the film work and that probably account for the highly negative reviews of the film (at least, assuming that others were left with a similar set of affects after viewing the film as me). It seems to me that the film interrogates the relationship between our fantasies and the jouissance they embody, and the reality of the world. The standard Hollywood action fantasy is that we can triumph over all adversity while looking fabulous (hence the video game theme: “life is ‘just’ a video game.”). However, by bookending the film between these two horrible realities of the woman’s circumstances, the film shows the lie of this fantasy, and rubs our nose in the truth of often brutal and hopeless circumstances in which people live and die. As Lacan argued, “fantasy is the frame of reality”. The action sequences and fetishized women that make up the bulk of the film are the sort of unconscious fantasy we have and the Hollywood fantasy that make the horror of the real by disguising or veiling this real. In Televison Lacan remarks that “reality is the grimace of the real”. We see elements of the woman’s true circumstances in the fantasy world, but only in distorted fashion.
Like Derrida’s parergon, the film shows what is outside the frame of fantasy, and this is what makes it so disturbing. It strips away the fantasy that frames the reality and reveals a horrific real behind it. Thus, where we believe that we are going to get another redemptive Hollywood yarn where the good will triumph, we instead are confronted with a horrific conclusion that leaves one filled with anxiety and sadness. The world we’re shown is a phallocratic and patriarchal order (the underlying truth of the fantasy world, hence the fetishized women in these sequences, the narrative of the brothel, and the violence towards women), where more often than not one does not escape. The film ends with the words “we have a long road ahead of us” as if to say, “quit fantasizing. See this. What are you going to do about it?”
I think it is this confrontation with such a bleak conclusion with such a horrific real that accounts for the highly negative reviews. “We expected redemption, we expected triumph, but instead we’re given this.” Unfortunately, it is here that the film fails. Rather than presenting us with an utterly bleak ending, there are still elements of redemption at the end, as if the circumstances and what has transpired in the real are thereby vindicated. Here my point is not that circumstances should be entirely hopeless such that there is no escape, but rather that sometimes the more powerful aesthetic technique is to present circumstances in all their horror and hopelessness to say that “good does not always win, people live amd die like this, that’s why we must fight for it.” And it is here that I wonder whether the producers didn’t rewrite certain elements of the script so as to spare us from having to encounter such a bleak truth. Given that the film is called “Sucker Punch”, that it builds up expectations of redemption and triumph, only to pull the carpet out from beneath us, the point seems to draw attention to our own expectations, beliefs, and fantasies. Certain elements of the ending seem strangely out of keeping with this.