While writing my critique of “Sucker Punch” I found myself wondering exactly what the film would have needed to effectively deal with its representation of imprisoned women. Well, that and what could have made it into a good movie. Then I watched Oren Shai’s short film “Condemned,” available for streaming on its website, and it became pretty clear. This short film has everything that “Sucker Punch” was lacking, the tone that Zack Snyder’s disaster desperately needed to succeed.
There’s real character development in this short, and within the first few minutes we care more about death row inmate Kim Novak than we do about Babydoll after the lengthy opening sequence of “Sucker Punch.” How does Shai do this? It’s actually quite obvious: he lets his protagonist talk. The voice-over here is sincere and direct, letting you directly into Kim’s head. Snyder’s film on the other hand opens with detached, confusing and faux-profound voice-over (and not voice-over from Babydoll) and then proceeds to introduce the audience to his protagonist without letting her say a single word.
Shai puts a frankness into the dialogue, all between women, which manages to show the brutality of being caged without any excessive violence or desperation. The female prison guard (who reminds me quite a bit of Charles Busch, best-known in the film world for “Die Mommie Die”) has some ridiculous lines, but they add to the blunt tone of the film. Snyder’s dialogue, on the other hand, is just too much, and instead of contributing to his characters it often makes them less rounded. They become two-dimensional archetypes of fetishized feminine violence, anger and mental instability.
And that psychological dimension of both “Condemned” and “Sucker Punch” offers probably the most interesting comparison. Kim Novak’s bouts of terror and uncertainty are of course not unpacked in full, as the film is only 14 minutes long. Yet there’s an important degree of nuance in Shai’s portrayal of a woman faced with her impending death, which creates significant depth of character. She’s insomniac, weakened by fear and even at one point harms herself, but she never loses her reality and her human dignity. Conversely Babydoll is also imprisoned and facing a kind of death, her lobotomy, yet the psychological ramifications of this are extraordinary dream worlds that are quite complex visually but add nothing to the depth of her character. It leaves you unfulfilled and frustrated, while “Condemned” gives you emotional authenticity and vigor.
Of course, these two films are completely different in their goals. The ‘50s noir/melodrama atmosphere of the short is far from Snyder’s video-game-stylized project, and they move to accomplish different things. Yet it seems pretty clear after having seen the two films that if “Condemned,” its tone and its sense of character were somehow injected into “Sucker Punch,” it would have been a much better film. Take a look, and let us know if you agree.