I was surprised at how little hype accompanied this year’s release of Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh’s first feature film since announcing his peculiar retirement in 2013 (more on that in a minute).
The film was well-received, despite an unremarkable performance at the box office. Virtually every critic who saw it had positive things to say. David Simms at the Atlantic likened it to a “cheerful sing-a-long of a movie,” and The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy called it a “breezy, unpretentious, just-for-fun film.”
Overall, it came off like a well-made little popcorn movie, a pleasant and minor summer release. I don’t know that it’s the best of the year, or the most important—hey there, Get Out, Lady Bird, and Call Me By Your Name (and Twin Peaks, if you’re one of those people). But Logan Lucky managed to diagnose the present moment perfectly and received very little recognition for it.
We should have been on the lookout for more from the moment the film was announced. To be clear, Soderbergh never retired. Not really. He gave up directing “cinema.” What that actually means is that he was fed up with how stagnant Hollywood had become and how much the people at the top interfered with creative vision. Or, depending on who he was talking to, it stopped being fun. Or, in his most succinct explanation, “movies don’t matter anymore.” Less than a year after his “last” film, 2013’s Side Effects, he directed Behind the Candelabra, a movie but one made for TV, followed closely by the Cinemax series The Knick. He’s also spent time directing theatre and producing series like Amazon’s Red Oaks and Netflix’s Godless.
It seems Soderbergh bought into the golden age of television hard, essentially turning his back on filmmaking destined for the big screen, save for a few feature film producing credits. So again, if Soderbergh was so over “cinema,” it was clear that Logan Lucky must have held some special appeal when Rebecca Blunt’s screenplay landed in his inbox.
Logan Lucky follows a family (known to be cursed with bad luck) as they plan and execute a major heist. Their target: the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina* during the incredibly popular Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR Race. Channing Tatum plays charming, down-to-his-last-penny single dad Jimmy Logan, with Adam Driver as his somber bartending brother Clyde. Together with their sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), and the Bang brothers, led by incarcerated explosives expert Joe (Daniel Craig), they take on the racetrack with the promise of millions in cash.
Soderbergh has described Logan Lucky as “the complete inversion of an Ocean’s movie,” referring to the Ocean’s 11 franchise he directed. And that’s a great way to look at it, with all the glamour and prestige stripped away. But there’s a lot more to the film than that. It’s a story custom made to resonate in 2017.
Our first hint of cultural critique comes when Jimmy loses his construction job in one of the film’s opening scenes. With a limp from an old football injury, Jimmy’s working with an undeclared “pre-existing condition,” which makes the insurance suits too nervous to keep him around. It’s an important detail, and feels even more so when he goes for a drink at his brother’s work, and we realize that Clyde has his own pre-existing condition as a war amputee—the proud veteran lost his lower arm at the very end of a tour in Iraq. The unemployability of Jimmy and low class standing of Clyde paints a rather ugly portrait of America’s treatment of disability. Even a patriot roped into a politically dubious (to say the least) war can’t seem to get much of a break.
That patriotism is a big part of Logan Lucky, and a big part of what makes the film so great. The characters all love their country, and are proud to call it home. As a viewer, you can’t escape the many symbols of America that permeate the film. From the ever-present stars and stripes, to the oddly moving rendition of “America the Beautiful” performed by LeAnn Rimes at the Coca-Cola 600. But something’s not quite right here, and we’re treated to a series of chinks in America’s armour.
The real anthem of the film is John Denver’s ode to West Virginia, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The first time it plays is in Jimmy’s car as he drives home from being fired. Pride and love of his home state are Jimmy’s escape. West Virginia (and the idea of America itself) is a fantasy that he longs for rather than a reality he celebrates.
A kind of McMansion vision of success permeates the film. With the have nots looking to crass commercialism (flashy cars, energy drinks, luxury condos overlooking the racetrack) as the prime example of the American Dream. Its true gift is in not looking down on its subjects, who are just regular folk trying to get by and finding diversions wherever they can. Jimmy lovingly helps his young daughter prepare for her beauty pageant, using heavy duty auto body tools to apply her spray tan in one of the film’s more tender scenes of “low culture” blending with good parenting.
Then there’s the target of the heist itself: a major NASCAR event. A symbol of both capitalism and America itself. The dimwitted Bang brothers (brought along at the sharper Joe’s insistence) go so far as to claim that “NASCAR is America,” as they question the moral implications of their crime. They’re not wrong. It’s a perfect symbol of capitalism, with cars wasting fuel as they drive at top speed in circles, making ridiculous amounts of money. And the track itself is built on landfills, threatening to cave in at any moment.
What better metaphor than going nowhere fast on a literal pile of garbage with a fresh coat of paint on it?
With an American president almost defined by excess—a boastful scam artist with a past peppered with bankruptcies, reality TV sleaze, and an uncanny ability to spend vast amounts of money while still seeming cheap and tacky—the film feels particularly timely. In fairness though, all of Logan Lucky’s allusions to wealth and class could be applied to the broken promise of the American Dream throughout history (though maybe that beauty pageant spray tan scene is worth a closer look).
The film even tackles systemic sexism and workplace harassment (speaking of the commander in chief). Released pre-Weinstein, it offers a conspicuously low-key condemnation of sexual misconduct that reads as much more meaningful on second viewing. In their attempt to convince the Bang brothers of the moral soundness of the heist, Jimmy and Clyde refer back to a former boss of Mellie’s who, when she was promoted to manager of the grocery store where she worked, became “handsy.”
We can infer that Mellie escaped the situation, as she’s now a hairdresser. While Mellie is clearly quite good at her job and seems passionate about what she does, it seems like more than coincidence that she’s chosen to dedicate herself to an industry dominated by women, and that she doesn’t bat an eye at the chance to rip off an industry defined by machismo.
These instances of abuse, mistreatment, and victimization, along with questions of ethics and “good” crimes, beget the question: who stands to lose from the Logans’ scheme. And here the film is quite clear, if implicitly so. Despite gobs of money being taken, this is effectively a victimless crime. Even if a large, faceless corporation stands to lose a few dollars (pennies, in the grand scheme of things), insurance companies pick up the slack, and they’re designed to do so. They’re incredibly efficient with money, after all, and have plenty to spare from doing things like fucking over poor people with disabilities.
Logan Lucky is both a portrait of working-class America and a clever bit of wish-fulfillment in which a fundamentally broken but self-perpetuating system is put in its place to the benefit of those in need. Only the system is too absurd to even feel it.
It’s a brilliant bit of satire. Of course Soderbergh was pulled back into the game. His minor titles have always been his best, smartest work. Movies like Magic Mike, Bubble, and The Girlfriend Experience are far better at reflecting the human stories of the day than titles like Traffic, Erin Brockovich, or Ocean’s 11.
But let’s not forget the writing. Film criticism tends to foreground the director, but it was the screenplay by newcomer Blunt that brought Soderbergh back to the table—and arguably achieved these moments of brilliance. Hopefully the folks with the cash will have noticed and recognized her talent.
I’ll be sure to line up for whatever she comes up with next. But then again, in a WTF twist, she may be an entirely fictional person, despite Soderbergh’s assurances otherwise. 2017, y’all.
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*Story has been updated December 14, 3:45 PM ET.