Haywire, Martha Marcy May Marlene and War Horse

Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire is definitely a step-up from his unfocused, underwhelming Contagion, but there’s something similarly lacking here too. Let’s call it human empathy. It was difficult to give much of a monkeys about any of the stock characters in Contagion, and the same applies for Gina Carano’s solider on the run either. This is Carano’s first major lead role, being better known as a Mixed Martial Arts star, and wow, can she kick arse. The plot is the usual soldier/spy/whatever being betrayed by her superiors and becoming a high-priority target, blah, blah, blah, and it’s easy to lose interest in all the scheming and double-crossing malarkey, which isn’t very excitingly staged. So it’s good that the action scenes are absolutely fantastic – real knife-edge brutality and kinetic ferocity. Carano has real presence in these scenes, and to be fair, does a solid enough job everywhere else, but it’s the fight scenes that everyone will remember. There’s various shady support from the Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas, and the always welcome Michael Douglas, and Bill Paxton’s suddenly old enough to play the main hero’s father, which was quite surreal. Michael Fassbender (hooray!) gets the best of the supporting roles as one of Carano’s contacts in the field, and their big scene together is the highlight of the film. Haywire is also amazingly stylish – the locations are great, the camerawork breathtaking and David Holmes’s terrifically versatile soundtrack a real bonus too. This is a real pleasure to watch, but only on the surface. Underneath, there’s nothing.

Much better is Martha Marcy May Marlene, an atmospheric, haunting and eerie drama about a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of the more famous Mary-Kate and Ashley) who flees a cult only to find her attempts to re-assimilate back into normality just as alienating. The plot switches from her return to her family (more specifically, her sister and her boyfriend) and then back in time to her experiences within the cult, which is a male-dominated world where the women are there for cooking, working and sex, sometimes against their will. The leader of the cult is played by John Hawkes, who gets saddled with worthless mini-roles in big-studio stuff like Contagion, but really gets a chance to shine in smaller-scale films like this and Winter’s Bone. Here, Hawkes exudes a quiet, understated but threatening presence, at once welcoming and scary. However, he is more than rivalled by Olsen, who is really superb here – she’s not a wholly sympathetic character, but she is a totally beguiling one. Director Sean Durkin effortlessly leaps back and forth in time, creating an atmosphere that’s dream-like, dazed with the hazy fog of memory, and subtle enough to make you want to watch it again to pick up on the little details that you might have missed out on. The ending is very inconclusive and will annoy the kind of people who got wound up with Inception’s open-ending. Open-endings can be used as a cop-out for writers and directors who simply don’t know how to end their plot, but in the best examples they can haunt and linger, and that’s the case here. The film’s obliqueness will frustrate some, but I loved it.

Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is an unashamedly brash and sentimental epic that leans towards overkill, but is too well made for it to be dismissed as soggy goo. Joey is the horse of the title, who is initially bought by reckless farmer Peter Mullan, who then gives him to his son (Jeremy Irvine) to bring up, only for World War I to begin, during which Joey is sold off to the war effort, where he begins a remarkable journey from new owner to new owner. Since our lead character is a mute and mostly inexpressive animal, War Horse doesn’t have much of a central hook to latch onto, and some of the film’s mid-section is too episodic. However, the film is littered with terrific set-pieces, beautiful photography and powerful moments. The performances are uniformly effective, especially Tom Hiddleston as the soldier who buys Joey to take to war and Anthony Worrall-Thompson lookalike Niels Arestrup whose granddaughter discovers Joey hiding in their barn. Yes, the film shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings, is relatively coy in in its depiction of war and so forth, but it is a stirring, pleasing bit of entertainment.

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