Thursday, February 02, 2012

Girl Power

What does a Western set in 1845 on the Oregon Trail have to do with a modern action thriller, you may ask? More than you think, I say. I had intended on writing two reviews but in a weak moment, I thought I could save some time and appear clever by comparing Meek's Cutoff with Steven Soderburgh's Haywire. How successful I am remains to be seen. The success of the movies is not in question. Both are outstanding.

Meek's Cutoff is based on a true story of a group of settlers led by Stephen Meek (played brilliantly by Bruce Greenwood), their guide. He's prone to bragging and general nuttiness and the band of weary travellers eventually figure out he may not have any idea where they are going. The trip that was supposed to take a couple of weeks stretches over a month. They're almost out of water and in treacherous lands.

Some might consider Meek's to be slow, but I believe it is for effect. The deliberate nature of the narrative builds tension and anxiety in both the characters and the observer. Being in the 1800's, there is a definite hierarchy of decision-making in the group, with the males ostensibly taking the lead. The male members of the group converse among themselves, the females the same. In one of the most effective plot devices, the conversations of the males are often in heard in the background by the females. But it is done faintly so that the movie watcher is made to feel like the women, barely able to hear what they are saying. I found myself often trying to turn up the volume (was on Netflix) just to hear what they were saying. It was a bit maddening and made me feel anxious. And, I believe, that was exactly the director's intent.

After endless meandering, no clear directing by Meek, and with water quickly running out, tensions rise to the point that the lead female, Emily Tetherow, played by the always fantastic Michelle Williams, takes things into her own hands. I won't say how, as that would give away a bit too much, but it is literal, symbolic and forceful all at once. Besides the previously mentioned Greenwood and Williams, the cast is capably filled by Will Patton and Paul Dano, among others. Dano (There Will Be Blood) and Williams (Brokeback Mountain) have a bit of experience in the Western genre, but the revelation is the virtually unrecognizable Greenwood. Usually playing clean-shaven, reserved and authoritative roles (Presidents a couple of times, Capt. Pike in Star Trek), he is positively wild and woolly here. I recommend this movie. Grade: B+

Haywire, with MMA veteran Gina Carano in the lead role of secret agent for hire Mallory Kane, was another pleasant surprise. Carano has had a couple of bit roles, but this is her first starring vehicle. As you would expect from a non-actor, this is not a Shakespearean role exactly, but it doesn't need to be. Soderbergh plays to her strengths ... a cool demeanor, physicality, great fighting ability, and, let's face it, she's not harsh on the eyes.

The details and intricacies of the plot are not nearly as important as the set-pieces for Carano's action. The plot does enough to carry Carano around to different places/countries and to different scene-chewing baddies: Ewan McGregor as her "boss", Michael Fassbender as a fellow agent, and Mathieu Kassovitz (Amelie) and Antonio Banderas as a couple of diplomatic string-pullers. Michael Douglas, Channing Tatum, and Bill Paxton all capably fill roles as her allies.

Movie watchers, and Americans in general, are idiots. As a rule, they are unappreciative of nuance and incapable of picking up plot points unless they are spoonfed them. For this reason, Haywire is the odd action movie more appreciated by the critics than the general audience (a point well made at Antimatter's blog). Perhaps misreading the TV ads, movie-goers expected an all-action movie. Thankfully, that is not what Haywire is. It's not that it doesn't have action ... it's that it is not go-go-go and it is not cartoonish. The action grows out of the plot.

One of my favorite scenes is after Mallory and Fassbender's character have left the party and she already knows of the doublecross. And I'm pretty sure he knows she knows. But they play it coolly. They are showing every sign of a normal loving couple returning home but there is a tightly coiled tension awaiting that moment when they get in the room and he will attack.
The strength of the scene (and the movie) is as much about the anticipation of action as the action itself.

Haywire has a lot of the usual Soderbergh elements: a quirky jazz soundtrack, clever dialogue, and cinematography digitally filmed almost exclusively by Soderbergh himself. Like most good directors (and even some bad ones), you could guess who the director was even if you didn't already know. But in the case of Soderbergh, that's not a negative. I recommend this movie. Grade: B+

For some more takes on Haywire, also check out Journal Wunelle and his review: Root Canal, and also the previously mentioned review at Matter - Antimatter: Annihilation

Now, to tie it all in, here is where I believe these two movies share some thematic elements. Both movies are spare with no effects and infrequent dialogue. Both have a strong female lead who initially take direction from males of dubious intent -- Greenwood's Meek and Ewan McGregor's Kenneth. Through adventures that are either ill-conceived or outright devious, those females discover the duplicity of the males. At that point, they take control of their futures and proceed to an ambiguous and unresolved end. But the destination, ultimately, is not as important as the path and the decision they made. Both have strong female protagonists that would be dangerous to underestimate or as the character Kenneth says in Haywire:

"Don’t think of her as a woman. That would be a mistake."


dbackdad said...

Also, for a pretty good feminist take on Haywire, check out this review I found: In Praise of Kick Ass Heroines ...

CyberKitten said...

I picked up "Meek's Cutoff" on DVD a few weeks ago. I'll let you know what I think....

Antimatter said...

Spot on... I'd also add that Mallory remains, while obviously tough, still femenine (but not in the preposteruous way that say Charlie's Angels did it).

I haven't seen Meek's Cutoff, though my interest is now piqued!

dbackdad said...

I look forward to both of your takes on Meek's Cutoff. I fear that it's just too quiet and slow for most people. I liked it but I can see where it wouldn't be to everyone's taste.

wunelle said...

I've never even HEARD of Meek's Cutoff. But after Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, I'm most intrigued. I think I chafe at "quiet and slow" less perhaps than most people.

I also love the scene you write about in Haywire between Carano and Fassbender. There's so much in what's not said--indeed, there's no dialog at all!

I think Soderbergh's work has not crystallized in my mind as it has yours. At times I can tell a director by watching alone, and I can see how he would be one of them. But I haven't watched enough of his stuff--with my eyes open to the direction per se--to pick him out of a crowd. I listed The Good German as one of my favorite films, though now rereading the review I was not totally sold. But it has grown on me. And I've always loved Solaris and Sex, Lies and Videotape. But he's done a lot of other stuff (I saw The Informant when it came out and can't really remember it; I should reread the review there too).

Anyway, I enjoyed your review!

dbackdad said...

I had just heard of Meek's Cutoff because of all the critic's top 10 lists that I had been reading and listening to on podcasts. It's almost universally in their top 10's.

The Soderbergh elements that I usually think of are the on-screen text that he often uses, big actors in smaller roles, and the general way in which he composes scenes. I guess, to me, quintessential Soderbergh-style movies are Out of Sight, Ocean's 11 and Traffic.