Haywire is Steven Soderbergh at his leanest and most improvisational best. It bears a strong resemblance to The Limey, although it’s not as ambitious — as before, the director is working from a script by Lem Dobbs, although this time I get the sense that they are working more in concert than with knives drawn.
The story is a functional espionage thriller: a contract agent, betrayed, finds out who sold her out and takes revenge. The unlikely star, Gina Carano, is better known as “The Face of Women’s MMA” (mixed martial arts), and she’s surrounded by an A-list cadre of male actors–Bill Paxton, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum, two-thirds of whom she gets to beat up.
Carano isn’t supremely comfortable with dialogue, and Soderbergh turns this into a dramatic advantage — she’s surrounded by men who underestimate her, but when the talking stops and the dancing begins, she’s more than their match. This subtle play between the fact of the actor and the character on the screen is a variation on a theme that has fascinated Soderbergh for a long time. It was a little too cute in Full Frontal and it was offensive in Ocean’s 12, but here it works just right.
Question: Ewan MacGregor is really good as a venal toady — has he played a sack of shit before? I can’t place it in his IMDB. Playing Obi-Wan Kenobi killed him as a leading man, and I’m glad of it.
The motivating idea behind Haywire is pretty simple: Gina Carano is probably the closest living thing to a female action-hero, let’s see what happens when we make her one. It’s an idea about performance and gender, one without a huge amount of depth, but here it’s free to go where it wants to and its structure serves it well. Soderbergh demonstrates mastery by using it lightly. By contrast, P.T. Anderson’s The Master is a study in heaviness.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an unmoored WWII vet and a horny, raging dipso. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic snake-oil salesman who welcomes Freddie into his young following, The Cause. Their performances are otherworldly, but the movie makes embarrassingly little of them; there’s a way in which they’re too specific to be engaging, and their relationship becomes hermetic, unsettling to Dodd’s family but of no discernible stakes or impact on anyone else.
The Cause was rumored to be a clef for Scientology, and there are certainly resonances — L. Ron Hubbard was a Navy man, and his Florida HQ is a ship — but there’s very little sense of what effect Dodd’s cult (or Freddie, for that matter) might have on American society. There are many interesting facets, including a dramatic shape that comes from the tidal pull between the two stars more than an Aristotelian mountain-climb, and some intriguing mythopoetic resonance. I thought of Ishmael’s dangerous philosophizing in “The Mast-Head.” But ultimately, I walked away with little more than sometimes the best thing about a relationship is that it keeps two people away from everybody else.
Food for thought: I was telling a friend about Matt Zoller Seitz’s impressive video essay about Wes Anderson’s influences and influence. (I can’t recommend it highly enough.) She argued that Alexander Payne, whose career is roughly contemporary with Anderson’s has been as, if not more, influential. We didn’t have time to get too far into it–what do you think? Payne’s slowly sinking middle-class white guys have definitely showed up in a certain type of film — Little Miss Sunshine, for example, owes a lot to him, and a lot of movies owe a lot to Little Miss Sunshine. Is there something there?