The Art of the Score: Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Logan Lucky’

Logan Lucky Movie Essay - 2017 Steven Soderbergh Heist Film

Welcome to “The Art of the Score,” a monthly Vague Visages column about the best heist movies ever made. Be warned — there will be spoilers. The third film we’re casing is Steven Soderbergh’s scrappy, loveable, self-proclaimed “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”: Logan LuckyWest Virginian native Jimmy Logan (the incredibly charming and slightly “dad-bodded” Channing Tatum) is a former college football star turned miner/contractor, bounced out of his job for withholding an injury seen as an insurance liability. While drowning his sorrows at a bar owned by his brother Clyde (a two-tour veteran and amputee portrayed by the real-life veteran and hilariously precise actor Adam Driver), he gets into a brawl with a trio of douchebags led by energy drink entrepreneur/racing magnate Max Chilblain (played by a great voice actor with a perennially punchable face, Seth MacFarlane). At the fight’s conclusion, Jimmy shouts “cauliflower,” signaling an epiphany for a scam. With a 10-point plan, he enlists Clyde, sister Mellie (the immeasurably attractive and perceptive Riley Keogh), demolition expert Joe Bang (a hostile, tattooed, Colonel Sanders-sounding prisoner portrayed by Daniel Craig) and the Bang brothers (Jack Quaid as the farcical technologically inept Fish, Brian Gleeson as the slack-jawed buffoon/moral compass Sam) to be part of a Charlotte Motor Speedway heist. They say that a curse runs in the Logan family, and this is where it ends. Logan Lucky, written by Soderbergh’s partner Jules Asner (under the pseudonym Rebecca Blunt), has a scrappy, underdog fallibility not evident in the clockwork precision of the Ocean’s trilogy (2001-07) that both excites and endears. The critical response upon the film’s 2017 release was resoundingly positive. The great Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times that: “If it [Logan Lucky] verges on being a little too pleased with itself for its own good, that’s an acceptable price to pay for something that makes you smile.” Kristy Puchko from Pajiba wrote that Logan Lucky is “lithe, lively and ludicrous… a joyful celebration of Southern culture with a generous helping of down-home whimsy.” Despite this buoyant affirmation of Logan Lucky’s quality, the narrative surrounding the film questioned Soderbergh’s desire to revisit a genre and a style that he’d so thoroughly (seemingly) exhausted with the Ocean’s trilogy. This incorrect perception of Logan Lucky as a reflexive backward step to a successful form is etched throughout the immediate critical responses to the film.The distribution of Logan Lucky was an experiment. Spending the whole $30 million budget on the film’s production and all-star cast, Soderbergh utilized a vastly cheaper, social media-exclusive advertising campaign that reduced an additional advertising budget of between $10-40 million. The result, a disappointing $48 million global haul, signaled that a movie on this scale in an exclusively theatrical setting could not compete in the landscape of superhero/IP-dominated blockbuster tentpoles or in the convenience of the streaming landscape. Since 2017, Logan Lucky has transitioned  from a lovable ne’er-do-well Ocean’s sibling to a hillbilly heist classic. In Priscilla Page’s beautiful and thoughtful appraisal for Bright Wall Dark Room, she wrote: Logan Lucky challenges stereotypes, undermining our notions about the working class. The film empathises with people that the system has forgotten and ignored. Unlike the Coen Brothers, who sometimes transform these kinds of characters into cartoons, Soderbergh’s film telegraphs its affection and sympathy for the Logans and the Bangs. They never feel like the butt of a cruel joke. Everyone in the world of the film perceives the Logans as simple-minded (“That’s a lot of thinkin’ for a Logan”), but the Logans prove them wrong.” Just as Alien anchors its science fiction terror with working-class struggles (pay deliberations from Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett and Yaphet Kotto’s Parker call into question the legitimacy of investigating the distress signal), Logan Lucky vividly paints an oppressive capitalist world, holding a boot to the throats of those on the ragged edge. Soderbergh’s 2021 film No Sudden Move, set in a Detroit crime underworld operating in the shadow of corporate forces, further reinforces the director’s keen appreciation of the evergreen quality of Alan J. Pakula’s All the Presidents Men (1979). In a way, screenwriter William Goldman’s synthesis of the Woodward and Bernstein investigation, “follow the money,” plays out in both Logan Lucky and No Sudden MoveNo Sudden Move de-mystifies the murky entanglement between bygone eras of organized crime and dawning corporate supremacy. In Logan Lucky, so much of the plan anticipates the reactions of corporate entities. Corporations no longer see crimes against them as insults but rather as infestations that must be fumigated quickly to restore order.

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Logan Lucky Movie Essay - 2017 Steven Soderbergh Heist FilmHeist films seem to be the last great bastion for absolutely stuffed casts. To paraphrase the moral foundation established in Jimmy’s creation recount of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (which is featured twice in Logan Lucky), I like this heist movie because of the heist, but I guess I like it more because of the fallible and messy heroes that create the story around it. Every new crew member is a layer of certainty in the Ocean’s series. Unfortunately, every new team member (that we’re aware of) in Logan Lucky continues to create potential tension obstacles and repeatedly dents the audience’s confidence that the operation can turn out to be anything but a success. Everything about Tatum’s Jimmy is revealed in one phenomenal exchange early on in Logan Lucky. Returning from the bathroom at the Duck Tape bar, he overhears the slimy Max Chilblain offering to film Clyde making a cocktail for the potential fame of the video going viral. Jimmy interrupts, pointing out his insensitivity and pridefully praises his brother’s sacrifice (“That’s two tours in Iraq right there. He stepped forward when others stepped back.”) When Chilblain doesn’t respond to human decency, Jimmy starts a fight against Max’s crew and cops a beating. Clyde breaks the fight up by setting Chilblain’s car alight. Jimmy swiftly snatches the phones from the henchman and tosses them with laser precision into the flames through a broken window. Conviction, fidelity, fearlessness: Jimmy has a charm.Driver adds to his growing chorus of unforgettable supporting characters. Clyde’s speaking cadence make him seem a little obtuse, but his responses show a considered over-thinker. For Clyde: worrying is a pastime. While the success of Knives Out would have one believe that Benoit Blanc is the best Southern character that Craig has portrayed, the grubbier Joe Bang is vastly superior. His bleached blonde crew cut, collage of prison tats and idling agitation make viewers relish every moment as he is continually impressed with the meticulousness of the focal ragtag outfit. Keough’s Mellie is utterly joyful. She’s a crafty and canny observer who wears the disguise of a ferocious driver (white knee-high boots, a variety of colorful and form-fitting outfits). Mellie, a hairdresser, is just an all-around anchor for her two older and more volatile siblings. From the moment Craig’s Joe Bang addresses Mellie’s jaw-dropping attractiveness, there’s an additional layer of exuberant tension in the crew. Quaid’s Fish is a scream. From the first second he’s on-screen — reading his misspelt tattoo — it seems that he will bungle the whole damned operation. Fish also delivers one of film’s best lines when he’s asked about his technical skills: “All the Twitters, I know ’em.” Perfectly complementing Quaid’s character is his faster talking, equally dim brother. Gleeson’s Sam takes longer to contribute and continually mispronounces his moral ultimatums. Sarah Grayson is a shark smelling blood in the water. Cold in manner and costume, Hilary Swank’s special agent signals that all of this could be too good to be true. Brad Noonan is the loyal human Labrador side-kick to Swank’s ferocious lead agent. Macon Blair’s character is a testament to the actor’s range after delivering memorable performances in the phenomenal Blue Ruin (2013) and Green Room (2015) as tainted characters, both literally and figuratively.

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Logan Lucky Movie Essay - 2017 Steven Soderbergh Heist FilmSoderbergh and Asner beautifully outline Jimmy’s list of “rules” for a heist. The list is an affirmation. Despite the crude (yet impressive) mockup of the raceway, the rules beam with deep insights about not what makes a successful heist, but rather what one needs to make a great heist movie. The rules are: 1) Decide to Rob a Bank2) Have a Plan3) Have a Backup Plan 4) Establish Clear Communications 5) Choose Your Partners Carefully 6) Expect the Unexpected7) Shit Happens 8) Don’t Get Greedy9) Remember, Shit Happens 10) Hang Up and Know When to Walk Away There’s something distinct and vital in the plan, too. The plans and backup plans are formulated before the partners are involved. For example, once Jimmy learns that his former work site will shut down ahead of schedule, their whole project needs to pivot to an earlier date and one of the most significant NASCAR events of the year.

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Logan Lucky Movie Essay - 2017 Steven Soderbergh Heist Film

There are almost too many entertaining components of the heist to mention. Mellie’s acquisition of a hot new ride owned by David Denman’s Moody Chapman (the wonderfully optimistic yet questionably appropriate stepdad to Sadie) completes the round trip to the raceway, which includes a terrific purple-haired distraction for the one police patrol car. The prison riot that Soderbergh and Asner hinge on water contamination, prison shop contraptions, the hubris of Dwight Yoakam’s Warden Burns and the *chef’s kiss* demands never get old. At the raceway, Joe Bang’s homemade explosives are one thing, but his insistence on following “we are dealing with science here” with an impromptu chemistry lesson is the most thematically direct moment. It hilariously challenges the audience’s perception versus the character’s reality.

Forgetting the unexpected movements beneath the racetrack (which the crew expects in the plan) bring Sebastian Stan’s Dayton White into sharp focus as a lunatic pro athlete who has achieved faux enlightenment and has been lured back to racing by a check that’s too large to refuse.

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Logan Lucky Movie Essay - 2017 Steven Soderbergh Heist FilmAt around the 90-minute mark in Logan Lucky, with one remaining list item left on Jimmy’s master plan (“Hang Up and Know When to Walk Away”), the movie feints a huge hoodwink. After Farrah Mackenzie’s Sadie sees her father’s silhouette etched in golden light at the edge of the high school auditorium and decides to belt out a tear-jerking rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” it seems that Jimmy has changed the game, and that he’s seen that the entire ruse is too big of a risk. With an anonymous tip-off to the police, the stolen funds are recovered and Jimmy leaves town to be closer to his daughter. Clyde and Joe are released from prison with no fanfare, and viewers are denied a celebratory sequence, a la the fountain scene in Ocean’s Eleven. When Joe Bang appears at the Duck Tape bar to interrogate Clyde about Jimmy’s whereabouts, there’s a kind of tragic feeling — that montage of well-earned sleep from the key crew participants after their adventure feels like a dream. The anonymous knock on Joe Bang’s door and the arrival of the mysterious shovel leads into a beautiful reaffirmation of Jimmy’s thoughtfulness: “They’ll know what we want them to know.” Then, with the outlandishly appropriate “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival blaring, anonymous payoffs reward those who participated (whether they were aware or not), and the actual elements and players converge.

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Logan Lucky Movie Essay - 2017 Steven Soderbergh Heist FilmIn the final moments of Logan Lucky, there’s a pregnant pause. Joe Bang talks to Mellie at Clyde’s Duck Tape bar about the Logan curse. Surrounding their conversation is the entire heist crew, out together now that the coast seems clear. When Mellie says that she hasn’t paid much credence to this supposed Logan curse, Joe Bang replies, “I’m all about the future.” Then a blurred out, obscured figure from the other side of the bar wrestles the movie’s gaze in a swift cut. Clyde tops up the shot glass for the stranger — seen in threadbare profile — and tops up a glass at her insistence to join in the toast as the camera revolves and reveals Swank’s Sarah Grayson. The special agent has abandoned her precise business suit and ratchet tight corporate ponytail; she releases her flowing, wavy hair and unleashes a gleeful smile. Grayson’s near sociopathic drive to catch her man has finally broken her suspicious and cynical work mask. As Jon Voight’s Nate says to Robert De Niro’s Neil of Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna in Heat (1995):”Three marriages. What the fuck do you think that means? He likes staying home? Means he’s one of those guys out there, prowling around all night, dedicated.” In Insomnia (2002) — Christopher Nolan’s spiritual sequel to Heat — Swank, in a way, plays a Hannah-lite character named Ellie Burr, a protege of Pacino’s Will Dormer. In the film’s climax, Dormer implores Burr to tell the truth no matter the implication. In Logan Lucky, Swank’s Grayson recaptures that feeling. What happens during Logan Lucky’s credits sequence is one of the great unanswerable questions of the heist genre. Does Grayson infiltrate the Logan family through the only person keeping the legend of the curse alive? Will the system’s urge to “bury it” hold? One may hope that Grayson will be charmed by Jimmy’s family. People say that the Logans are simple-minded, but they aren’t greedy; they know when to hang up and walk away. To paraphrase author Timothy Zahn, I hope that Grayson’s Lady Luck continues smiling rather than reaching for a rock.

Blake Howard (@OneBlakeMinute) is a writer, Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic and the Australian Podcast Award-nominated host and producer behind One Heat Minute.