La Femme Familiar: Haywire Reviewed

Steven Soderbergh's new thriller reprises the rogue-operative-seeking-revenge-on-her-paymasters genre. Yasmeen Khan weighs the pros and cons of this popular action formula

Who’s that girl? She’s really hot. She’s a kick-arse fighter. She’s smarter than any man. Actually she can beat up men twice her size. Three at a time. She’s an international spy/assassin at the top of her game – and now she’s on the run. The shadowy agency that created her has betrayed her. But she’s not just running to survive – she’s coming back for revenge. And it’s not just about her. It’s political. Traditionally, narratives of personal vengeance play out in the private sphere, but the spy game’s global and the stakes are so much higher…

The strong female action hero makes for a compelling story, and Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire is the latest in a long line of films and TV shows telling it. On the surface, her story has the gloss of ’empowerment’, even of ‘feminism’; underneath, though, it’s the same narrative of worm-turning revenge against the fundamental structure of patriarchal authority that hasn’t changed since the exploitation flicks of the ’70s. That’s OK. Retelling is about having something new to say within an established structure. Haywire’s problem isn’t the formulaic plot. It’s the anaemic execution that prioritises the politics of it (ie the action) at the expense of characterisation and motivation, the heart of storytelling. The personal is the political, but in Haywire the political has eclipsed the personal.

Haywire opens on Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) standing alone in the snow. Who is she? How did she get here? What’s she running from? The film that follows is typical of a particular strand in Soderbergh’s oeuvre: pretty enough, slick enough, curiously bloodless and emotionally empty, occasionally beautiful, never truly compelling. It’s like Ocean’s Eleven (2001), where the action is so slick there’s no time to breathe and ask who these people are. Or Traffic (2000), which uses colour grading – beautifully – to create atmosphere, but suffers from the assumption that that’s sufficient. Or Contagion (2011), which seems to be trying to illustrate what Stalin supposedly said about the death of a single person being a tragedy but the death of a million a statistic – yet fails to show us one single person worth caring about.

Haywire works like a thriller-by-numbers. In a series of flashbacks, Kane gradually reveals her story to a young man after she commandeers his car for her latest escape. Basically, she was trained and then betrayed by a private security firm that does dirty jobs for governments. The intricacies of who employs whom to kidnap or kill whoever are, of course, hopelessly complicated by conspiracy, double dealing and betrayal. They don’t really matter. You know where this plot’s going. It’s how it plays out that’s supposed to be the interesting part.

The shifting of the female-revenge narrative into the traditionally male-dominated spy-assassin-political sphere has evidently struck a chord with post-third-wave-feminism contemporary culture. Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1991) is the iconic example: the damaged, drug-addicted criminal, forced to become the instrument of the government against her will. Before Nikita, exploitation films like Lady Snowblood (1973) or I Spit on your Grave (1978) are about women who take up arms against rapists, abusers, stalkers – men who’d hurt them in private. This tradition continues – Kill Bill (2003-2004), Lady Vengeance (2005), Colombiana (2011) –  but Nikita raised the stakes.

It spawned a remake, Point of No Return (1993), a 98-episode Canadian TV series and the current American one. Then there’s Hanna (2011), Salt (2010) and TV series such as Alias, Dollhouse, Firefly and the latter’s feature spinoff Serenity (2005). The elements are consistent: a young woman is turned into a killer by a shadowy organisation which replaces the abusive male of the traditional revenge story. First comes brainwashing and reshaping her body. Then it betrays her and she finally rebels. Now her enemy’s reach is global, while she remains alone – her eventual victory is that much more impressive.

Stuff like this often gives rise to talk about ’empowerment’. Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a classic example of the way this kind of discourse works, the female action heroine ostensibly giving young girls a role model who says: "You don’t have to be passive in life. Physically or intellectually." The uncritical acceptance of this ‘message’ is problematic. It usually goes along with a portrayal of extreme sexual desirability. Feminism has recently been engaging with dismantling the idea sold to women that we can find freedom in beauty, and that attractiveness goes along with ’empowerment’. Yes, we participate in this discourse, but we’re encouraged to at least question why we do it. Films like this need to start doing the same.

Girls aren’t the whole story; men are sold similar messages now. Haywire‘s other line of descent is from James Bond via Jason Bourne. Like Evelyn Salt, Mallory Kane’s designed as a female Bourne. But Bourne, silent and enigmatic (and physically attractive) though he is, is brought fully to life by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass’s films. His backstory and emotional attachments add depth, light and shade to his character. He acts in the personal as well as the political context. It’s impossible to care for Kane in the same way. So they screwed her over. OK. So what? Haywire doesn’t give us a reason to care. It’s so keen to show us her political significance, it neglects to give us a personal connection to her. Mallory Kane can’t fall in love with her rescuer the way Jason Bourne does with his, for fear of seeming to say ‘she’s escaped, but she still needs a man to look after her’.

It’s technically dispassionate, too. The most immediately interesting, and therefore ultimately disappointing, section of the story is set in Dublin, where Kane is sent to pose as the wife of another agent she knows nothing about (Michael Fassbender). The trailer gives away what happens here, so it’s far less effective than it should be if you’ve seen it, but the characters’ lack of interest in one another or in why they’re there at all is what really blunts the effect. This is symptomatic of the whole. Odd beats between sentences make conversations feel artificial, just as idiosyncratically paced action scenes unbalance the entire film. In the few moments where these techniques succeed at creating tension, they succeed brilliantly – but that’s not enough.

Haywire’s narrative of displacement, abandonment, injustice and vengeance is one that’s graduated from the personal, feminine space to the global, masculine sphere in the last twenty-odd years. The point here isn’t that we should bemoan the replacing of one type of heroine with another, even more inaccessible one we have even less chance of living up to. That’s problematic, but it’s not the main thing that’s wrong with Haywire.  The principle flaw is that the film doesn’t recognise that good storytelling needs to be located primarily back in that private sphere – even if that seems at first to counteract the ’empowerment’. All the clever camerawork, editing and soundtrack choices in the world can’t make a story compelling without some kind of depth of characterisation, some insight into personal motivation. Further, good storytelling is often about re-telling. With reliably popular, formulaic plots like this, the focus could and should be on reshaping the narrative in response to the current cultural context.

Contemporary feminism has been able to step back from the wider perspective and concentrate on issues that affect us as individuals, and there’s possibly a fantastic female-spy film to be made that locates the action in the murky area where the personal and political collide, to explore the tensions in modern women’s lives. But Hollywood’s not there yet. Its template ‘strong’ woman still has to be tougher than men, inhumanly so. TV can do it. There are dozens of fully rounded strong female characters leading TV shows: Alias, Bones, Castle, Rizzoli & Isles, Body Of Proof… The ongoing format gives these shows the luxury to explore the politics fully without having to solve every dichotomy. Looking after children doesn’t stop women being strong, but it does affect their working lives. A relationship can be supportive or destructive, as can the lack of one. Risk-averse, mainstream Hollywood seems to feel that a 100-minute genre feature can’t do justice to these plots, stories that show that life is made up of tensions, not agreements, and that sometimes stuff just is inconsistent. But it should be able to begin approaching them. The problem with films like Haywire is not that they can’t succeed in the same way as genre TV. It’s that they don’t even try.

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