In the unnamed 1960s, the doll-faced Babydoll, played by Emily Browning (The Uninvited), accidentally shoots and wounds her evil, molesting step father. No problem; she acts in self-defense. But a stray bullet also offs her little sister. Ooops. Off Babydoll goes to Victorian, thunderstorm-swept Lennox House for the Mentally Insane, hilariously located in Brattleboro, Vermont. (I once lived there. The institution does not exist, but a mental health an addiction treatment facility called the Brattleboro Retreat.)
The big, scary Lennox House is full of nut house clichés, from rusty doors, peeling paint and white tile, to the oblivious orderlies, the lecherous cook (who of course is obese), and the doctor (Jon Hamm of “Mad Men”) who administers the lobotomies. A megalomaniac lech heads up the institution (Oscar Isaac from Robin Hood). There’s one understanding psychiatrist, Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino from Watchmen), whose play-therapy shtick equates imagination with freedom. “That world you control,” she says with her Slavic accent. “That play can be as real as any pain.”
If the viewer pays very close attention, it is revealed that Baby Doll may suffer from undiagnosed Schizophrenia. The dream worlds that Baby Doll falls deep into are coping mechanism that she uses to disassociate herself from the abuse that she has suffered from, at the hands of her step farther. Then the dream worlds are used to help Baby Doll deal with the sexual abuse that she suffers by the crooked orderlies and others in the asylum that her stepfather sends her to, after the attack where her sister is murdered.
First, you have to swallow this: More than half of the movie takes place in BabyDoll’s mind. Supposedly, to keep her sane in the loony bin, our Snow White begins to have fantasies of being a hooker trapped inside a Moulin Rouge-like whore house run by the creepy pimp (Isaac again; everyone plays at least two roles in the film). Apparently, in the girl’s mind, being a whore is a step-up. But Babydoll inserts another fantasy layer inside the first (I know, but stay with me here): a quest to obtain five items—a map, fire, a knife, a key and a fifth thing TBA. If she succeeds, she can escape the institution and bring her friends with her. This second fantasy she can only access when she revs up her erotic dance routine for the voyeuristic men. (Cleverly, Snyder never lets the audience see her sexy moves.)
Meanwhile, the production design and digital landscapes have been steeped—OK, soaked—in a sea of sepia. Some of it is stunning. We see some cool cross-pollination of genres.
Back in WW I, there’s zeppelins but also zombies and an anime-inspired, jet pack-powered bipedal armored fighting machine emblazoned with a pink bunny. That’s piloted by Amber, who handles all the flying duties. At one point, when Wise Guy barks at the ladies, “They’re using steampower and clockwork!” I half expected a subtitle to pop up: “Hey Steampunk Fans: We get it!” followed by, in smaller type, “[Hey Newbies: Steampunk is a genre the uses anachronistic technology or futuristic inventions as Victorians like Jules Venre might have envisioned …]”
So what are we left with? Men are horrible, predatory pervs? That they “silence” a young woman and her “voice” via real or imaginary lobotomies?
At first this movie seems pretty senseless and has been criticized as being such but whether Snyder intended for it to or not, the movie actually does bring up some important issues about asylums and the way the patients are viewed and treated. We have discussed abuse that patients receive from the orderlies which very clearly happens in this movie. Blue states that he runs the asylum and can do whatever he wants to the girls and gets the other male orderlies to help him. He physically and emotionally abuses the girls in order to get them to do what he wants. This is one of the most frequent stereotypes people have asylums, especially in an all-women’s ward in the 1960s.
The film also shows the difference in how the head doctor takes care of patients. Dr. Gorski appears to be the only psychiatrist for the women and while she actually wants to help them, she leaves a lot of the work to the orderlies which allows Blue to get away with everything he does. Even though she is the head authority in the asylum, a lot goes on behind Dr. Gorski’s back and it is not until the very end that she realizes anything sinister is going on. It shows the power dynamic that occurs in mental institutions where the orderlies have much of the power because they are the ones in main contact with the patient. This also plays into the discussions we have had about how the psychiatrist can become separated from the patients and how much influence do they really have in their patient’s lives?
So is Sweet Pea/Baby Doll’s reality wrong because we do not understand it or just another way for the girls to cope with the harsh world around them?