Crookedly satisfying and more homegrown than director Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, Logan Lucky is much more than the much-vaunted director’s return to cinema from a thankfully-brief self-imposed exile. It’s also a return to the subject matter of his greatest popular successes – the ‘00s-defining trilogy of glitzy star-studded celebrity-commentaries mentioned above – but, crucially, not entirely a return to the idiom, mood, or tempo of those films. Logan Lucky, a scratchy and Southern version of those self-conscious tall tales with moonshine and whiskey replacing scotch and Vespers, is admittedly adjacent to those films, and its populist goals are harmonious to them. But Logan Lucky is also a film for our times: a post-recession hoe-down that is sun-baked, scrubbed-out, and let-down by the world in equal measure, a work of high spirits but weary eyes with glances both toward day-dreaming in the clouds and staring at the pavement. Either way, it’s hard for it to look straight ahead.
Amusingly, this decade-later, bath-tub-aged brew also carries its resonances as far forward from the subject of its forebears. While the Ocean’s films were all ‘60s accumulation and good cheer, Logan Lucky is an uncivil, prickly bramble bush of a ‘70s star vehicle, a scruffy, vaguely-stoned, raffishly cynical entertainment much in the post-Watergate mode. It’s more inquisitive, curious, even impolite. If the Ocean’s films were carousels and golden-hued playthings – humming, finely tuned machines racing forward with the efficient combustion and fussy but unpretentious showmanship of sleek dragsters – Logan Lucky endears us to its wheezing, rust-bucket charisma and barely-put-together, duck-taped ambitions. Humanistic to the core, it’s a film without hubris, one that doesn’t attempt to wrap us up in its purring mechanics, or even court our respect by spending five minutes putting itself together in the mirror beforehand. Knowing full-well that perfection – or the privilege of believing in it despite all the evidence to the contrary – is beyond ‘10s America, Logan Lucky is a humble plea for human, and artistic, imperfection.
Shorn of the tendentious pressure of focusing on A-listers, Logan Lucky effuses a genuinely meddlesome sense of thorny camaraderie unalloyed to any showy acting centerpieces recalibrating the film from communal farce to individual self-song. (I mean, ok, there’s Tatum, but he and Soderbergh are obviously on a wavelength together at this point, and Tatum with Soderbergh is a magically self-effacing B-actor rather than an egotistical A-lister). Endeared to these people without sacralizing them, Soderbergh doesn’t pedantically presume that making fun of them is off-limits. He also keenly understands the deceptively slovenly and loose-limbed but perceptive and cutting interpersonal games that so deeply inflect Southern culture, ones rooted in public performance of wealth and/or authenticity and defined by generational hand-me-downs where cultural assumptions, even minuscule ones, don’t die hard. Logan Lucky also nails the particularly amorphous backwash of play and work, when neither is complete without the other and the two are essentially indecipherable, that has marked communal, agrarian communities as notably different from the protestant-ethic, spirit-of-capitalism factory-efficiency associated historically with the Northern US.
But Logan Lucky never hews itself closely to any theme; it’s much more democratic than that, more willing to share and spread its casual love around to not only various characters but multiple ideas and even tones. Certainly, Lucky is too scruffy and unshaven for a tight-as-nails plot, so it rolls itself out loosely with an eye for its own kinks and sputters, getting caught on indiscretions and marginalia for regional flavor and cultural context while never getting lost in the molasses of references and the inertia of hang-dog chill-out cinema. Like any good Southerner, it knows how to rest, in other words, but it’s always moving. Think of Faulkner’s long-winded, ostensibly side-gesturing, back-tracking, never-hurrying, mint julep-sipping longueurs and extracurricular asides that nonetheless deceptively form the backbone of tight and tumbling narratives. Add a hundred years, subtract the form-destroying stylistic radicalism, drink more beer and less liquor, and you get Logan Lucky.
Although story is more effect of mood than the other way around, as is usually the case, I’ll at least note the broad outline. In this tale, Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver) are both of the backwoods Logan clan, a sort of Hatfield and McCoy mythic West Virginia archetype whose foibles permeate through the cultural lexicon around them. Except, in this case, they have no external opponent; they’re just fighting each other. Fed up with his life, from being fired for ethically dubious reasons owing to a limp to his wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) divorcing him, he hatches a plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 500, one of the biggest Nascar events of the year, if not the biggest. To do so, they also rope in their sister Mellie (Riley Keough). Then there’s Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), a noted safe-cracking expert who needs to be broken out of jail and returned that day without anyone knowing to abet the robbery, and his two brothers (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) come along for the ride as well.
Although that sounds like it could be the spirit of a tight-as-nails, hot-headed heist thriller, Logan Lucky is too slippery, and, frankly, too thoughtful for that. Tipping his camera to the marginalized and out of the way minds in American lore, Soderbergh instead plays around with his film’s own messiness and unkempt demeanor visually. Throughout, he displays an obvious affinity for close-ups, but he cunningly teases a higher purpose to them than we expect. Throughout the close-ups, his camera seems to be inspecting clues, asking us to play the investigator, only to slide right out from underneath by greasing up our best rational efforts and dipping them in the deep fryer. The close-ups are there not to be roped into a narrative but to establish a mindset, a sense of place, even an ethos, a fugitive and outcast spirit that plays fast-and-loose with storytelling much as it twists and eschews the law.
It’s a blessedly uncomplicated film, but also very complex, submitting the feisty camaraderie of the tone to the murmurs of despondency beneath them. Barrels of thought are parceled out slowly, casually, with respect for space and time, each a little character detail or part of the procedure folded into the story rather than burdening the film from above. (I especially appreciated how the characters buy their supplies at the most American of all institutions (a big box store), robbing one institution with tools purchased from another). It’s a thoughtful film, but it’s also self-effacing about its intellect, a style which is itself mobilized thematically as an ode to can-do, to know-how, and to confounding expectations beyond appearances.