The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by Lucy Fife Donaldson.

Photo from the article Haywire feels like a film fundamentally at odds with itself. It has thrillingly dynamic action set pieces that are riveting to watch, yet the rest of the film is cold and unengaging, helped a great deal by a radically out-of-place cool jazz score by David Holmes. Decisions concerning visual style work hard to engage us with on-screen action; the film displays a fairly atypical tendency towards long takes and a refusal of the kind of close camera positions and rapid cutting that have become so central to contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, especially action cinema. This approach (and lack of music in these moments) does a great deal to place the drama of Gina Carano’s physicality at the centre of her fights with various male opponents.

As such, the film’s style suggests it is invested in Carano’s physical capabilities, foregrounding her strength as a woman and allowing her to defeat men without recourse to ‘feminine’ behaviour. At the same time, the narrative seems to be at pains to contain her behaviour and explain her actions as, at least in part, motivated by gender dynamics: the double-crossing of which she is a victim is the master plan of her ex-lover Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), making it appear to some extent to be revenge. The film also goes to some lengths to point out her femininity alongside the more traditionally masculine elements of her character (ex special forces, highly trained, dispassionate): she initiates a romantic liaison with Aaron (Channing Tatum) and ably plays the part of glamorous newly-wed to Paul (Michael Fassbender).

The issue of gender is hard to avoid when a woman is at the centre of an action film - a genre so frequently dominated by male protagonists - and even more so when that film chooses to surround her exclusively with men (Haywire is a film that definitely doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test). The two main possibilities for female representation in action cinema seem often to be for the action heroine to be masculinized and eventually marginalized (Vasquez in Aliens [1986] is the archetype here, but see also Michelle Rodriguez in pretty much any film she’s been in; there are clearly some underlying racial tendencies to this issue), or for her to be ultra-feminine and sexualized (Charlie’s Angels [2000]). While Mallory is an energetic counterpoint to these tendencies, she also feels undeveloped as a character. Perhaps this is partly a practical manoeuvre, due to Carano’s lack of acting experience, but if so, the film’s balance is even more severely tipped in favour of the men, all of whom are experienced actors, if not established Hollywood stars. The result is an unevenness - of narrative, character, performance - at the centre of the film, which increases the sense of a film failing to be fully in control of itself.

What is most uncomfortable about the film’s tonal (and ideological) tensions is that all the shifts into a position of distance - signaled through music as well as more physically distant camera positions - feel like a deliberate disavowal of the pleasures of action cinema and female power, which seem on the face of it to be the core of what Haywire is about. For me, the experience was fundamentally undermined both by this seeming lack of control and the snobbery indicated by it. Yes, Steven Soderbergh is a director celebrated for his ability to move in and out of the mainstream, and perhaps the Ocean’s Eleven franchise is a playful tongue-in-cheek manifestation of that, but what’s the point in doing something if you’re not going to commit to it? For me, Haywire feels like a film Soderbergh wasn’t quite taking seriously. More problematic still, it also seems to reveal a misunderstanding of how action cinema works, or does best - including the possibility of allowing female characters to be physically dynamic and engaging.

Adjacent to the shortcomings of the film itself, but perhaps indicative of them, is the way in which critical responses to the film seemed generally to praise Soderbergh for finding a non-actor and getting a passable performance out of her. There is a real condescension in essentially denying Carano’s authorship of her own performance (especially considering she is not exactly a novice in front of the camera) and ascribing it to the ‘brilliance’ of the director. This is a serious sticking point for me. While Soderbergh might be a talented director of actors (according to Carano herself), and Carano’s performance as a whole may be no more than adequate (the fight sequences are astonishing, which throws her lack of energy in other scenes into somewhat stark relief), the kneejerk nature of this widespread response felt a remarkably crass repetition of the outdated sexual politics of the starlet/Svengali model. This is not ideal for a film which in theory seems to offer a chance for female autonomy in a traditionally male-dominated genre. On the other hand, it is perhaps an unfortunately appropriate discussion for a movie that, in practice, is more conflicted on the subject of the action heroine than it might at first appear.

This Alternate Take was published on March 18, 2012.

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