There are 28 actors listed in the closing credits of Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire.” Three are women. One, Gina Carano, is the film’s star. The other two appear in a single scene each: Natascha Berg plays a trophy wife who struts around in a skimpy bikini and Debby Ross Rondell is a lowly diner waitress who delivers both of her lines (nine words in total) off-camera. Lost amidst all the buzz and hype about “Haywire” as an action movie with a female hero was the fact that said female hero was essentially the only female of any kind in the entire movie.
In various interviews around “Haywire”‘s release, Soderbergh talked about the movie as a “companion piece to ‘The Limey’” and a conscious attempt to craft an alternative to modern action movies and their over-reliance on cutting, handheld camerawork, and special effects. To the best of my knowledge (and Google searches), he never discussed it as a political film — but viewed on Netflix Watch Instantly the night after Mitt Romney stood in front of an international television audience and talked about the “binders full of women” he sorted through to find female members of his cabinet, “Haywire” reveals itself as a sneakily political film — and a witty reflection of many of the biggest issues of the 2012 election cycle.
A lot of it has to do with Soderbergh’s treatment of Carano’s character, Mallory Kane, as a woman not only surrounded by men, but dominated, controlled, and betrayed by them as well. A brief synopsis: Kane is a secret agent for hire (more on that later) employed by an organization that accepts contracts to perform espionage work on behalf of the United States Government. While on assignment in Barcelona and Dublin, she is framed for murder by a British spy (Michael Fassbender) and then targeted for assassination herself. Kane manages to get the jump on her would-be killer, and heads back to the United States to figure out who set her up and why.
The large, middle chunk of the movie follows Kane’s activities in Europe and the United States as she gets revenge on the men — and, yes, it’s excusively men — who tricked and tried to kill her. Bookending her adventure are scenes in which stuffy bureaucrats sit around deciding her fate. These scenes feel like echoes of 2012’s political debates about health care: women are discussed and argued about — and completely absent from the conversation. A government agent named Coblenz (Michael Douglas) and his Spanish contact Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) hire the company headed by a man named Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) to extract someone from Barcelona under house arrest — and then specifically request Kane head up the operation. She must be the one in charge, they insist. But she’s not present at the meeting. She gets no say in the decision. It’s as if they picked her out of a binder.
The audience gets a palpable thrill watching Kane’s adventures — but to the characters onscreen, she represents a threat, one who must be dealt with because she has become too powerful and too unpredictable to be controlled. The related subtext of the rest of the film, in which Kane kills every man who wrongs her or gets in her way, is that women are excluded from the halls of power, they are exploited and deceived, but they’re eminently capable of handling things themselves.
“Haywire”‘s political dimensions extend beyond its depiction of women’s role in (or exclusion by) modern society. On first viewing, its narrative is mighty obtuse. It’s structured around a long flashback that convolutes the characters’ already tenuous allegiances even further, so that some of Kane’s associates are introduced as antagonists and then revealed as lovers, and others initially behave like friends and then betray her. Once you’ve got all the pieces sorted in your mind though, you see that Soderbergh is essentially telling a cautionary tale about the dangers of the free market and the privatization of our government. Kenneth and his organization act like CIA spies — but they’re actually independent contractors. In a sense, the United States has outsourced its own security to private business.
If you watch enough debates, and particularly the punditry surrounding the debates, you’ll see men — and yes, they’re almost exclusively always men in this case as well — explaining how we need to cut and downsize our government and remove regulations that prevent capitalism from working like it should. In “Haywire,” we see that argument tested and ridiculed. Kane eventually discovers that — SPOILER ALERT — she has been set up by Rodrigo and Kenneth, who was worried that she might leave him for another company and take all their business with her (apparently, Coblenz is not the first guy to ask for her by name). Killing and framing Kane would ensure that Kenneth’s business remains intact — and that Rodrigo gets a cozy finder’s fee. Rather than working to protect our national interests, these groups are simply out to line their own wallets. Explaining to the British spy why he needs Kane eliminated, Kenneth explains the situation bluntly: “The motive is money. The motive is always money.”
To the list of men who tried to control Carano during “Haywire,” we can add one more name: Steven Soderbergh himself, who changed her voice in post-production, making it sound deeper and a bit more polished. Presumably this was to make Kane more authoritative; maybe Soderbergh worried audiences wouldn’t buy Carano as a world-class spy with her own voice, and he was concerned the film would suffer at the box office as a result. In other words: the motive was simply money. The motive is always money.