It begins and ends with the same word

“It’s always about the money,” says Ewan McGregor to Michael Fassbender, as we in the audience wait to be surprised.  Instead of a surprise, though, we get the feeling that what Ewan (or Kenneth, as his character is so named in the film) says refers to something broader than the events within the film.  Just look at the films Steven Soderbergh has done.  Now look at this one.  Now look at this one’s cast.  It’s either the director’s charisma and substantial resume, or an equally substantial paycheck that brought this group of fellows together.

You want a real surprise?  Okay, here goes: Haywire isn’t a bad movie.  There’s a literary form called Paraprosdokian, which occurs when the second half of a sentence or phrase is so surprising to the reader that it changes the reader’s interpretation of the first half.  Can you think of any films that effectively apply this technique to a visual medium?  If you answered yes, were any of those films released after 1990?  Countless movies of this generation attempt the “shocking” narrative twist, but they omit that special moment when, after hearing a clever turn of phrase, you take that split-second breath before saying, “Ohh, I get it.”  That breath is what makes getting it satisfying.  This generation’s thrillers do one of two things: hold your hand and ease you into the twist so slowly that nothing could possibly shock you, or lead you down one path before violently shoving you down another.  Haywire falls victim to the former (want an example of the latter?  Check out my review of Unknown).  Fortunately, Soderbergh’s thriller has a little bit of cushion.

A fair warning: if you don’t fall for Gina Carano’s character of Mallory Kane when she’s gently sipping tea in an upstate New York cafe’ in the opening scene, then you never will.  The film follows Mallory’s retelling of her betrayal at the hands of a private military company.  The fact that most of the film is told through flashbacks eliminates a lot of potential tension, but not inherently: Carano’s straight-laced delivery perishes any though of Mallory being an unreliable narrator (unlike last year’s The Debt, a similar narrative in which a detail left out by Jessica Chastain’s character changes the entire plot).  The company, which may or may not be run by Kenneth (McGregor), has murky dealings with contacts in Barcelona and Dublin, where Mallory is sent to do a couple of jobs.  The company also involves Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) and Aaron (Channing Tatum), whose positions are unclear.  While doing a job with Paul (Michael Fassbender), an MI6 agent, Mallory is sold out and becomes the object of an international womanhunt.  While attempting to figure out who’s pulling Kenneth’s strings, she systematically takes down her hunters, simultaneously protecting the innocent people involved – namely a diner named Scott (Michael Angarano) and her father, John (Bill Paxton).  Michael Douglas even appears as a guy who does something for the U.S. government.

What struck me about the film is how quiet it is.  Not sound-wise, mind you; the gunshots are thunderous enough.  But there are long shots of Mallory running, walking, and driving – shots that I admire.  A scene in which Mallory backs up a car shows us not what’s behind her (all elements of danger: angry cops, wild deer, rugged road conditions), but just her face and what’s moving away from her in the safe distance.  Carano does all of her own stunts and fight work, which is refreshingly easy to follow, as it’s well-cut (i.e. not edited much) and makes no obvious use of wires or CG.  The music is equal parts calming and vein-pumping when it should be.

I’m still not certain, however, whether the “big reveal” is supposed to be a genuine surprise.  We had no reason to believe it wasn’t this person.  Furthermore, due to the fact that the male characters (with the possible exception of Paxton’s sympathetic dad) have as much personality and as many distinguishing features as a six-pack of toothpaste tubes, Haywire becomes a film in which it’s pointless to try to solve the mystery yourself.  You know it’s all going to be spelled out in an hour anyway.  The ending also leaves one begging for another five seconds with the characters (and not in the incredible way Another Earth did).  “That’s a hell of a way to end a movie,” a film-goer said to me as we exited the theatre.  “It’s like they were setting up a sequel.”

Mallory’s most revealing scenes happen when she’s sipping tea or walking through her apartment in a bathrobe.  There’s not much growth for her character – there almost is, when her father, unbeknownst to her, spies her killing an attacker, and we know it’s the first time he’s seen this happen – but we’re allowed to feel for her.  She has sympathy for the innocent, and has a life – or wants one – outside of killing bad people.  We did, however, need that extra five seconds.  The film’s best scene is a terrific one-shot conversation between Mallory and Michael Douglas’ character, who appear almost as silhouettes, in a garage at the end of an airport runway.  It’s tenser than any of the fight scenes, and the potential consequences are much greater (because, let’s be honest, are we ever afraid Mallory is going to lose a fight?).

Gina Carano is a good actress, though I’m afraid that if her career skyrockets, she will be pigeonholed into this exact same role again and again.  But at least it’s a leading role.

Haywire (2012); written by Lem Dobbs; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor and Antonio Banderas. 

Gentlemen Broncos

Cyclops there; cyclops there

Let me begin with a suggestion: someone should start a running tally of films that end with Kansas’ “Wayward Son” playing over the credits.  Put that on my wish list.

Gentlemen Broncos features an outstanding performance from Jemaine Clement of the popular New Zealand duo Flight of the Conchords.  He stuffs away most of his Kiwi accent and replaces it with pure arrogance.  The story follows Benjamin Purvis (Michael Angarano) and his quest to be a popular science fiction author.  If you can get past the glaring inaccuracies as far as publishing, the writing process, and the “fortune” that comes from being a fiction writer, it’s an enjoyable film.

Opening with “The Year 2525” by Zager and Evans, the film promises a strange adventure.  In this respect, it delivers.  The narrative toggles between the real-life of Benjamin, who attends a sci-fi writer’s camp led by his hero, famous author Ronald Chevalier (Clement), and the story of his fictional protagonist, Bronco (Sam Rockwell), who changes appearances based upon whose version of the story is being imagined.  Chevalier’s new novel is apparently so awful that his publisher wants nothing to do with it, so he steals the best piece of student work, which happens to be Benjamin’s.  The interactions between Angarano and Clement are funny, well-acted and in some cases truly clever.

There are a few needless sideplots, including 1) a friend of Benjamin’s attempting to make his story into a zero-budget indie film.  The friend claims to have made eighty-three motion pictures and is granted a television interview in which he talks about the adaptation of Benjamin’s novel.  Why does this guy have money if his films are so obviously horrendous?  How did he get the TV interview?  Why would anyone care?  2) A misguided pseudo-romance between Benjamin and Tabatha (Halley Feiffer), which is foreshadowed from the second or third scene of the film but never addressed until 3/4 of the way through.  3) The exploits of Benjamin’s deranged mother (Jennifer Coolidge), who designs horrid dresses and makes things out of popcorn.  Edgar Oliver gets shot in the chest with darts at some point, but I’m not sure why.

Additionally, the gross-out jokes often distract from some of the very witty and creditable humor.  I counted three occasions of vomit and three occasions of feces, as well as countless testicle jokes.

I was, admittedly, turned off by the complete and utter victory of Benjamin at the end.  Quite often, popular authors who plagiarize do not have their careers abruptly diffused and disappear from public knowledge altogether (David Shields, James Frey, that Russian girl, etc), nor would the kid whose work was plagiarized actually have his book published in place of the bogus one by the already-famous author.  Nor, I hasten to add, would it sell, and if it did, he’d certainly not make enough money to a) be happy/secure, and b) start up a business for his mother.  Again, this is a world of fiction, and maybe I’m trapped in the reality of the writer, but I would have preferred Benjamin’s family to remain destitute while learning things about themselves and changing as people, while the villain wins money but lives on with the knowledge that he stole his idea from some poor kid.

All in all, this is an enjoyable and bizarre ride.  The filmmakers were wise to base the story around genre-fiction and use actual passages from the works very sparsely (though when passages appear, they consist of some of the most cringe-worthy, unpublishable writing you’ve ever heard.  Whether this is purposeful is never truly clear in the film).  It does, however, capture the eternal arrogance and idiocy of pulp sci-fi writers.  The highlights include Jemaine’s performance, the music, and the very weird settings, which quite often make use of stop-motion animation and puppets as opposed to obnoxious CG.  If you’re a writer, it’s worth a rental, and it far surpasses the annoying Napoleon Dynamite.

Note: I had this film on Netflix and misplaced it, searching for two months before discovering the sleeve behind the living-room baseboard heater.  How this happened remains a mystery.

Gentlemen Broncos (2009); written and directed by Jared and Jerusha Hess; starring Jemaine Clement, Michael Angarano and Sam Rockwell.