Steven Soderbergh is a filmmaker lauded for his versatility. From the $1.2m Sex Lies, and Videotapeto the $110m Ocean’s Twelve, Soderbergh consistently delivers well-made, intelligent crowd-pleasers. However, it wasn’t until recently that I gained a full grasp of his talents.
To say you’ve seen four films by a single director usually means you’ll have an idea of their general approach and style. However, Soderbergh has directed 26 narrative features, a handful of shorts, a documentary or two and upwards of 30 TV episodes; and four features kind of pales in comparison.
I’ve seen Erin Brockovich, Che: Part One, Contagion and Behind the Candelabra, as well as snippets of Magic Mike and at least one of the Ocean’s movies; but it didn’t feel right to include it because I can’t for the life of me remember which one it was. While I enjoyed each of these four (Erin Brockovich the least and Behind the Candelabra the most), it seems this biopic-dominated list wasn’t a fair representation of Soderbergh’s expertise.
Enter Haywire, Soderbergh’s 2011 Gina Carano-led action film. Let’s put this up on front street; Haywire is great. But, more importantly, it’s great without having any prestige trappings. However they are directed, biopics of Che Guevara, Liberace or the woman who took on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company are going to have connotations of ‘worthiness’. Admittedly, Contagion is a different matter, but pandemic thrillers are still seen as a step up from revenge action flicks.
Now, Soderbergh may have elevated a number of seemingly straight-up genre movies in the past that I just haven’t seen (Magic Mike springs to mind), but Haywire stands as my first insight to the true powers of his Midas touch.
Carano plays Mallory Kane, ex-marine and current security contractor operative, who is betrayed by her employers and goes in search of those responsible. Narratively, Haywirehits a set of genre-friendly beats, albeit via a non-linear structure in which Soderbergh and his writer, Lem Dobbs, use flashbacks to establish how exactly Mallory ended up beating on Channing Tatum in an upstate New York diner. So, the chronology is interesting, albeit seemingly unnecessarily dense and often downright befuddling, but that’s the least compelling element of Haywire.
Now on to the really good stuff: Soderbergh assembles a top-drawer cast. Carano displays great presence in her breakout role, and she is joined by *holds breath* Ewan McGregor, Antonia Banderas, the aforementioned Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas and Bill Paxton. Soderbergh is one of only a few directors who could bring together such a venerable cast to a $23m action movie, and they all bring their A-game under Soderbergh’s assured direction.
Soderbergh also brings a real visual flare to Haywire. Impressively, he acts as his own director of photography – under the pseudonym ‘Peter Andrews’ (a tribute to his father, Peter Andrew Soderbergh) – and the results are tremendous. He shot the film in his preferred digital format, using the Red One with Hawk anamorphic lenses. But, while the technical minutiae are beyond me, there’s none of that off-putting digital crystal cleanness to the image. Instead, Soderbergh’s frame is textured and rich, with some really gorgeous lens flare. When combined with Soderbergh’s artful eye, it makes for some really striking shots. His camera placement is so confident that any unconventional angles are blended seamlessly. His command of diegetic space is brilliant, and his camera makes use of every square inch of the sets and locations. It really is a beautifully shot movie.
Soderbergh and Carano on the set of Haywire.
His visuals also do a great job showcasing the supreme talents of his leading lady. An ex-MMA fighter, Carano has a sheer physicality that would have Rebecca Ferguson shaking in her boots. She’s both immensely built and brutally feminine, and her fight scenes are breathtaking. Soderbergh shoots these combat sequences in steady wide shots, revelling in Carano’s power.
This is enhanced by the editing in these scenes – yup, Soderbergh again (this time as ‘Mary Ann Bernard’, his mother’s name) – as his cuts methodically around these makeshift rings. There’s no quick cutting in an attempt to soup up the hits – Carano packs a hard enough punch, I think you’ll find – and it makes for some terrifically entertaining mano a mano showdowns.
In fact, the perfectly judged fight scenes are representative of the film, as a whole. Soderbergh demonstrates the kind of confidence in his directorial abilities that is attained by only the very best filmmakers. The scattershot narrative, aside, Haywire is just so wonderfully, well . . . just so.
Steven Soderbergh is undoubtedly a modern master of cinema. But, who’d have thought Haywire would have been the film to confirm that for me?