Steven Soderbergh Is Better Than You Think He Is

(Even If Haywire Isn’t)

Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, Haywire, was released at a high point of media interest in the director, thanks to widespread reports on the news of his retirement from film directing at the ripe age of  49- in his prime, in fact. Even if we grant some inclination to critical generosity on account of this, a Metacritic score of 67 is pretty remarkable for an action film, and a laudable result for a director working in the genre for the first time; despite isolated action scenes in earlier films, Haywire is Soderbergh’s first extended foray into the genre. So it was newsworthy when, a few days after it opened, it received a Cinemascore audience rating of D+. Adding injury to insult, it opened in 6th place at the U.S. box office, and to date has grossed just $15 million (IMDb chart 27 January 2012), against a budget of $23 million.

This is quite a change from the norm for new releases of action films, a genre more typically characterized by disdain from critics but enthusiasm from audiences . Why have viewers been so disgruntled by the film? This reaction is not dissimilar from that of those who were upset that Drive isn’t more like The Fast and the Furious. Drive and Haywire don’t have much in common, it’s true, but there is this: neither film is fish, and neither film is fowl. These are not conventional Hollywood action films by any stretch, yet they both have far too much action to fit into the indie/arthouse category they have so much in common with otherwise. Drive, if anything, is easier to get a handle on; its violence comes in short bursts in between long, dreamy interludes studiously recreating the existentialist cool of early Michael Mann. It’s European/arthouse credentials are therefore clear, both in the tone and in the referentiality. Haywire is comparatively action-packed, without the overtly arty pacing or lingering psychological ambiguities of Drive, and without the reverence for old movies. If Drive is fundamentally an arthouse homage to straightforward action and crime films of days gone by, then Haywire is an action film first, but one in which Soderbergh draws on “indie” aesthetics to subvert expectations. The ending is not exactly ambiguous, but it is open enough to be off-putting to action devotees; the narration is legible, but the chronology is non-linear; emotions are downplayed; and the conflict is conveyed in terms that avoid the Manichean overstatement that often feels endemic to the genre. Soderbergh is not parodying or denigrating his chosen genre framework, though; this film is never condescending to the action film, and one is left with little doubt that he could pull off a more straightforwardly commercial film if it wasn’t for the probability that doing so would bore him to tears. If Drive exemplified certain recurring traits of its director, Nicolas Winding Refn- an interest in the laconic, in wide-angle lenses, in violent masculinity- then Haywire, too, is clearly the product of a director who works repeatedly with particular collaborators (here, Lem Dobbs and David Holmes), who shies away from overt, heavily-underlined emotional manipulation, and who has a distinctive, if pared-down and functional, sense of composition and rhythm. Too, Soderbergh’s abiding interest in process, especially in recent work, is clearly visible here.

Even if, like Ocean’s 11, Ocean’s 13 held back some key information for the sake of the punch-line, compared to 11 and 12 it verges on the exhaustive in its elaboration of the team’s interlocked strategies for revenge. K Street focused on the how’s of lobbying to the point of completely ignoring any intelligible ongoing story. The Girlfriend Experience, likewise, eschews linear storytelling in favor of a study of the economic, physical, psychological and emotional exchanges in sex work, a film that is more essay as narrative. Che avoided the epic romanticization of the conventional biopic (and, indeed, the scope of biography) in favor of a detailed study of two revolutions, one that triumphed and one that failed miserably, so as to examine the process of revolution in all its variables and contingencies (leading troops, jungle fighting vs. city fighting, mobilizing political discourses, etc); in that sense it, too, has an essayistic quality.

Contagion generated considerable suspense from a rigorously grounded delineation of a pandemic, its ripple effects, and the range of responses to it, but at the same time, its harshest reviews came from those who seemed to expect something far weepier and more melodramatic, an updating of the Irwin Allen aesthetic that Soderbergh studiously avoided (…like the plague! boom!).

Haywire spends far more time on how Mallory first eludes and then tracks her antagonists, escapes from Dublin, and figures out what’s happening to her and how to fight back- on the processes of espionage, and indeed of fighting, as kinds of work- than it does generating a deep empathy for her.

This need not have been quite such a stumbling block to the film as it turned out to be, but in the event a lack of feeling for Mallory renders the film curiously unengaging. Why this happens goes to the heart of why Haywire fails, but also to what makes this a Soderbergh film, and so to why Soderbergh is so important and so valuable, and why Soderbergh is so frequently misunderstood and underrated, even by critics and cinephiles: he is the most restless, rigorous, and probing experimenter in American narrative cinema today. Nothing characterizes him as a director more than that.

Contemporary action films are largely exercises in fast editing, close framing, and incessant camera movement, whether harnessed to realism (the Bourne films) or to lavish spectacle (Michael Bay). At it’s best, such films are exercises in movement and rhythm played out through editing and cinematography as much as through performance, staging, and stuntwork, and much of the fascination of these films comes from the experience of them as visual music. While audiences have evidently embraced this aesthetic, critics and scholars haven’t, and people ranging from David Bordwell to Matthias Stork have instead called up HK or “classical” cinemas to demonstrate the range of options that other action cinemas have draw upon in contrast to their contemporary-Hollywood Bad Object. In Haywire, Soderbergh attempts to marry the naturalism of the Bourne films with the performer-driven staging and stuntwork of Hong Kong, doing so by casting an actual mixed-martial-arts fighter as the hero, rather than a Matt Damon, say, an actor whose limited abilities require felicitous framing and cutting to impart the illusion of realistic yet physically impressive action. This allows him to stage fight scenes in long takes, and predominantly in long shots, and still achieve exciting results. If at first the pacing and framing seem flat, there is a steady build such that later scenes are as dynamic as anything being made in Hollywood, even as the phenomenal integrity of the profilmic action is maintained (that is to say: the filming respects the reality and continuity of the action unfolding in front of the camera). The problem with casting an athlete, though, is simply this: she can’t act. Worse, she has little or no charisma. This is why stars work so well in genres like this: the film need not develop character in detail, or even do much to make us care about the heroes, because we already know them and care about them from other films. The presence of the star is a kind of storytelling shorthand, because they bring their whole persona to the film, and we bring our knowledge of that persona from all the other films we’ve seen them in. Gina Carano has no such advantage here, and given Soderbergh’s lack of interest in building up the character psychology (which would have been another kind of departure from action film convention, and evidently not the one that interested him), given that we don’t know her, given that she brings none of the things a professional actor can… well, the film does recover from it, but only progressively. As it goes on, our sympathy for her is elicited bit by bit: by reactions to her and the situation from characters we do respond to (be they for her or against her), played by people capable of provoking an immediate viewer response (Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, and Antonio Banderas are instantly repellant; Channing Tatum is likable; Michael Douglas effortlessly calls up an ambivalent response that makes us more nervous for Mallory; and maybe most critically, we care about Bill Paxton within seconds of his first appearance, and that Bill Paxton cares about her makes us care about her too); by our deepening sense of her plight as it develops; and from a direct, brute response to watching bodies in peril. If I was more and more invested in Carano’s Mallory as the film went on, the fact that I didn’t for so much of its length rendered it impossible ever to care very deeply.

Haywire may not completely work, but it does indeed serve as a reminder that there are a whole range of things action films can do beyond what Hollywood does with them now most of the time, and that there are more things to be tried. It’s a failed film for all its virtues, but a fascinating experiment, just as one might say of The Good German (an adaptation of classical Hollywood style in the service of a bleak narrative that is more ‘70s paranoia thriller than film noir) or The Informant! (a nearly unclassifiable film that wrongfoots expectations at every turn and throws any notion of tonal consistency out the window: is it a character study or a thriller parody, or both? a docudramedy, perhaps? seriously, what is it?). That in so many ways it breaks from the game as it is played today is part of why audiences don’t know what to do with it, just as people so often have trouble getting a handle on Soderbergh’s oeuvre in general. What is he? What kind of films does he make? Most directors of his caliber have a more recognizable, idiosyncratic approach (Wes Anderson, for instance, but even P.T. Anderson). Soderbergh’s idiosyncrasy, though, is his uncategorizability. This resistance to pigeonholing is such that even those who recognize the sheer range of the films he makes can’t seem to figure out who he is. For casual, mainstream spectators, Soderbergh is a name known, if at all, from Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s films, a maker of smooth but a bit off-beat entertainments. They might have liked Contagion, but Che and The Girlfriend Experience baffled them (if they stumbled across them at all), and Haywire left them cold. Closer observers, including a lot of his fans, often like some kinds of films he makes, but not others, and thus look back to some moment in his past career as a touchstone, as a revelation of some “true” Soderbergh underneath all the restlessness. One set of fans lionizes the serious-but-entertaining social problem filmmaker of Erin Brockovich and Traffic, and for them his recent films, for some even including Contagion, are either too cold or too obscure. Another takes him as an indie director who dabbles in mainstream genres, their perception of Soderbergh rooted in Out of Sight and The Limey. Haywire makes sense to them, but Contagion, Che, and The Girlfriend Experience didn’t appeal. I would argue, though, that to understand Steven Soderbergh, you have to understand Schizopolis: you have to understand that Soderbergh is at once an experimenter and a formalist. Schizopolis is as far outside the mainstream as any contemporary A-list director has ever gotten, but it’s not a Romantic burst of free expression, it’s not an improvisation, it’s not a Godardian jazz solo of a movie. It does not, to recall Kerouac’s description of postwar jazz, follow “free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought.” It is free only in that Soderbergh crosses boundaries and departs from convention. He doesn’t ignore the normative, though; rather, he violates it at every turn, systematically, rigorously exploring all the different ways restlessness, lust, and marital and professional ennui can be depicted in visuals and dialogue. If Lost Highway reeks of being a wallow in David Lynch’s post-divorce rage, bile, and confusion, Schizopolis is a very different kind of divorce movie, one made by a director who turns his emotions into fodder for a series of formalist cinematic games.

This does nothing in itself to counter those who charge that he is cold, but it could also be said that the more lightly he touches on emotions, the more powerfully one senses them coursing under the surface. Schizopolis is hilarious and playful throughout, but a deep despair is there too. For that matter, Contagion was for some of us more moving precisely because it didn’t shove emotions in our face, allowing us to find them ourselves. That said, others found parts of the ending maudlin, but frankly, letting the daughter have her prom was the least Soderbergh could give us as an emotional bone, and certainly the succeeding “Day 1” segment introduced a far more chilling note at the film’s close. Haywire’s emotions are as buried as Mallory’s, so much the cool-headed professional as she handles her predicament, but there is no sense of what’s beneath the surface because Carano is not capable of conveying the sorts of depths that made Damon so compelling in the Bourne films. Still, I could be open to the counterargument that, for procedural fans, for spy-movie fans, this makes it a purer hit of the drug. The bigger pity of it for me is that since his efforts to make The Man from U.N.C.L.E. have fallen through (since George Clooney dropped out, Soderbergh moved on and Guy Ritchie is now attached), I can’t see a project in his immediate (pre-retirement) future where he can put the lessons learned here to use in another action film (though who knows what sort of film The Bitter Pill is going to be).

One reason why Soderbergh’s experiments are so satisfying to a viewer like me, a bit of a formalist myself, is the palpable sense of setting out cinematic problems and carefully working through solutions. From this he gleans a body of methods  used to tackle different problems in subsequent films, thereby in turn generating yet more solutions. His filmography sees him systematically and progressively take up challenges, push the approaches he takes to their limits, and apply those lessons in ways to perpetuate the learning process. Schizopolis freed him from the more schematic, limited formalism of earlier films in ways that allowed him to achieve a looseness that enlivened Out of Sight; the (deceptive) sense of looseness and temporal play of that film were taken much further in The Limey, which was at once more intricately structured (reminiscent of Resnais in its non-linearity), and yet more attuned to the nuances of mood and moment. His sense of how to introduce a sense of mood and contingency into a highly structured work helped him find new, fresh notes in the much more mainstream Erin Brockovich. And so on. Consider how far he’s come as a cinematographer from the first films he shot as “Peter Andrews” to now, and how far he’s come as an editor since he started cutting his own films as “Mary Ann Bernard.” This is not to take the old auteurist line that each new film by a canonical director builds on the previous in an ever-ascending arc of greatness; like all ambitious directors, Soderbergh has stumbled along the way. But there is a sense of forward motion and steadily accumulating mastery in a career dotted with films where all the lessons seem to come together to produce genuinely sublime results. Solaris is one, an unusually lyrical film for him that is a culmination of his experimentation with subjective non-linear narration, and of his attempts to find his own particular union of genre and art cinema.

Che is another, utilizing both an understated, documentaristic realism (the depiction of revolution not as epic, heroic narrative but as a gradual, day-by-day, inch-by-inch trudge) and a systematic, highly patterned formalism (the whole series of stylistic and formal contrasts in the diptych construction) to their extremes.

Looking back to and ratcheting up the network-narrative stratagem of Traffic, combining it with a keener focus on process and a broader sense of social interconnectivity, Contagion was another high-point.

Haywire isn’t a high-point, really, but apart from the performance issues (which admittedly were fundamental to the whole design), it is a beautifully-made genre film, and one that throws up new avenues to explore, should Soderbergh wish to. He may or may not do so in the few films he has left before he steps away from directing films, but I don’t think anyone doubts that he will return to filmmaking in time, and that when he does the lessons he’s learning now will be put to good use. For someone who has moved forward with the restlessness he has demonstrated, it seems appropriate that one gets the sense that he feels exhausted. He has spoken of running out of new ways to make films, of wanting to take a break because he cannot figure out how to jump to another level; for instance, in a recent Film Comment interview, he spoke of not knowing how to do some of the things with visuals that David Fincher or Terrence Malick do. He may not feel he has the stylistic facility of Fincher or the poetry of Malick, but the elegance and precision of so much of Contagion and Haywire (especially when compared to the often-leaden overstatement of Kafka and The Underneath) suggests that he’s selling himself a little short, that in fact there are plenty of moments where he can and does approach the level of Fincher. Of course, Malick is doing another sort of thing entirely, and in finding himself wanting by comparison, Soderbergh is holding himself to an awfully lofty standard. That may not be the best thing for his peace of mind, but viewers have reaped the rewards from Soderbergh constantly moving forward, constantly raising the stakes of the game he’s playing.  Wherever he sets his sights when he does come back to directing, I don’t think I’d bet against him.

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  • Roger L  On August 27, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Paul, thanks for this long discussion and analysis of the joys (and frustrations) of Soderbergh. He has had the luxury of being able to make a relatively large number of films in various styles, creating a much richer oeuvre than most of our favorite filmmakers, and we have had the luxury of watching him over the last 2 decades. Anyone who can go from a Kafka biopic to King of the Hill so early in his career and take on a remake of Tarkovsky and Magic Mike years later is worth all the attention we can give him.

    Keep up the good work,


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