Logan Lucky marks Steven Soderbergh’s return to cinema after a hiatus of three years, during which time he directed the entire two seasons of The Knick, along with the HBO telemovie Behind the Candelabra. Given Soderbergh’s parting address at the 2013 San Francisco Film Festival about the future of cinema, it was questionable whether he would ever return to the big screen, even if the sheer volume of his body of work suggested that it would be difficult for him to simply switch off his artistic talents. If anything, moving away from a traditional cinematic format produced arguably the most prolific and voluminous period in his career to date, with The Knick effectively playing as a sustained twenty-hour film in which he was able to expand and elaborate upon his digital cinematography as never before. Now, with Logan Lucky, Soderbergh appears to have come full circle, and to have returned in some more definitive way, not only because this is a regular feature-length film, but because his recourse to the heist genre seems to signal some continuity with the Ocean’s trilogy, and with his earlier work in general. Yet that continuity is also deceptive, since Logan Lucky isn’t exactly a return to film so much as a point of departure, as Soderbergh uses the heist genre, along with the prison escape genre, to contemplate how much has changed since the days of Danny Ocean, in what often feels like a necessary point of transition between the residual cinematic coordinates of his more recent television work and his next planned release, Unsane, which has been shot in its entirety on a SmartPhone.
That televisual legacy is front and centre in Logan Lucky, which focuses on a band of misfits who decide to perform a heist on the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the annual Coca-Cola 600 race on Memorial Day Weekend. While Channing Tatum may play Jimmy Logan, the disenfranchised labourer who devises the heist in the first place, most of the rest of the cast made their name on television, including Adam Driver (who plays Jimmy’s brother Clyde), Katie Holmes (who plays Jimmy’s ex-wife Bobbie Jo), Riley Keough (who plays Jimmy’s sister Mellie), David Denman (who plays Bobbie Jo’s new husband) and Jim O’Heir (who plays Jimmy’s boss). While there are also some cameos from top-billed actors, most notably Daniel Craig and Hilary Swank, their cinematic pedigree is all but eroded amidst thick accents, “eccentric” monologues and characters that are pointedly at odds with their respective actors’ regular accents or regional dialects. With that kind of plastic, cartoony vibe, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Seth MacFarlane should appear in the guise of one of the principal NASCAR sponsors and the only witness to the heist, even as he is also given the strangest accent – a thick English brogue that is presumably designed to suppress all the various Family Guy characters that inhabit and inhere within his voice, turning him into a cartoony potentiality more than a discernible character or distinctive comic presence.
That casting arrangement in itself differentiates Logan Lucky from the Ocean’s films, in which the spectacle of cinematic celebrity, and ensemble celebrity regard, was the real payoff from the heist. Yet there are other big departures here as well, the most notable of which is that it is now a collection of working-class folk who are committing the heist, in what a Charlotte news anchor playfully dubs “Ocean’s 7/11.” To that end, Soderbergh holds back from the slick Brat Pack nostalgia of the Ocean’s trilogy in favour of a more independent aesthetic that recalls some of his earliest films in its sense of being pieced together, a bit rough around the edges, and not quite as funny or as suspenseful as a more seamless and integrated product might aspire to be. At the same time, Soderbergh also seems prescient that this is something of a contrivance after such a string of Hollywood blockbusters, which is perhaps why Logan Lucky also plays, somewhat parodically, as a riff on the kind of “independent” aesthetic that became popular in Hollywood around the turn of the millennium, and which often took regional Americana as its subject matter. In particular, Logan Lucky often reminded me of Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune and the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Are Thou?, both films that almost anticipated quality television in their relish for studied regional dialects as an index of artistic independence.
At a more general level, the piecemeal, workaday, working-class approach of Logan Lucky also feels like an allegory for the film’s own production, exhibition and distribution, since Soderbergh not only adopted a more independent financing approach but also opted for a more underground distribution model, both of which are somewhat embedded in the nature of the heist itself. In order to fully grasp how, it’s useful to turn to the other major point of departure from the Ocean’s trilogy – the spatial scheme of the heist and the architecture, topography and layout of the structure being targeted. For the most part, heist films converge and then disperse around a single clearly defined space – a space that actually becomes more sharply compressed as the participants in the heist set their sights upon it. Yet those centrifugal and centripetal imperatives are confounded in the case of Logan Lucky, since the Charlotte Motor Speedway is an almost unimaginably porous and expansive space. One of the managers refers to it as akin to a “city” in its size, scale and population (at least on race day), and, like a city, it seems to expand the dimensions of the landscape around it in ways that prevent the heist converging upon it in a regular manner. At the heart of the Speedway, and the heart of the heist, is the “money pit,” the vault where all cash is distributed throughout the day by way of a series of pneumatic tubes connected to all the vending outlets. Yer even this space is highly permeable, with the result that the team has to make accomodations for smoke pouring out the other end, and flooding the cafeteria, tickets office and other points of sale, when they do eventually blow up the vault.
That spatial structure doesn’t just affect the heist itself but the build up to the heist, since a great deal of the impetus of a heist film comes from the way in which the team sequester the space in advance, both physically and psychologically, and reduce it to a series of gradated thresholds in the process. In this case, however, the participatory breadth of the Speedway renders that impossible, with the result that the car trips to and from the heist become indistinguishable from the space itself, and the team seem to be participating in the Coca-Cola 600 as much as stealing its earnings. While the race does clearly function as a distraction, the heist also displaces the race, or at least allows the race to expand beyond the Speedway to become the driving principle of the heist as a whole, and the medium through which all the participants communicate. The more the film converges on the Speedway, then, the more it expands to encompass everything beyond and subsequent to the heist, until the heist barely seems to have happened at all, resulting in an abbreviated third act that seems to depart from cinema as emphatically as Soderbergh’s 2013 address.
Before getting to the conclusion, it’s important to also mention that there is a subsidiary prison escape film buried within the heist film, since a critical part of the plan involves getting Clyde Logan into jail on a minor charge, then freeing him and another inmate for the duration of the heist, before returning them to their cells without the warden noticing. Where heist film are usually about getting into spaces, prison escape films are usually about getting out of spaces, and yet Logan Lucky combines and confounds them, with the result that it is the cumulative and repetitive alternation back and forth across thresholds – rather than the singular or sublime traversal of thresholds – that gives the film its rhythm, even if it progressively erodes the very thresholds upon which these two genres appear to depend in the first place. Most directly, that ramifies at the level of physical space itself, since for all that Jimmy Logan might initially object to Bobbie Joe taking their daughter across state lines, the film continually zooms back and forth between West Virginia and North Carolina, until the welcome and departure signs fade into the darkness and the film, like Jimmy himself, effectively occupies their respective thresholds rather than any state in particular.
At the same time, the film is full of objects that continually change hands, most obviously – and literally – Clyde Logan’s prosthetic hand, which is continually taken on and off, and actually stalls the heist equipment at one point, forcing the team to put cash back into the vault in order to recover the hand from the extraction device. It’s not just the fact of the hand either, but the continual exchanges of information that it necessitates, as Clyde finds himself compelled to explain to every newcomer that it’s a prosthetic hand, rather than a prosthetic arm, part of a wider trend towards conversations that subsist more on the indefinite exchange of repeated phrases across a theatrically heightened threshold between two parties – a prison table, a fairground booth, a mobile blood bank – rather than regular, linear cinematic dialogue. Given the casting nods to both The Office and Parks and Recreation, that often makes Logan Lucky feel like a workplace comedy as much as a heist film, since workplace comedies are about nothing if not the cumulative traversal of bathetic thresholds. No surprise, then, that the most memorable scenes often don’t relate directly to the heist at all, but to all the characters the Logan family encounter who are just going about their daily business, and performing their jobs, unbeknownst of the part they are playing in the robbery, or the events that are unfolding right beneath their daily routines.
On the face of it, that might sound more bathetic, or broadly comic, than Soderbergh’s recent output, and so it is at times. Yet beyond the spaces, objects and dialogue of the film, this denuded heist aesthetic is also a function of Soderbergh’s beautiful editing, with one image often bleeding into the next image before the sound accompanying it has had time to catch up (or, conversely, with one soundscape melting into the next soundscape before the image illustrating it has had time to catch up). It’s at these moments the film really seems to anticipate Unsane’s use of SmartPhone cinematography, since its the very presence, porosity and portability of Soderbergh’s camera here that ultimately queries the splendid sequestration of space upon which both the heist and prison escape genres depend. As might be expected, that produces some quite vertiginous transitions – from noise to silence, from inside to outside, from one space in the Speedway to another – as the heist becomes an allegory for the fate of cinematic syntax more generally, an object lesson in how plausibly the digital camera can still mimic the analog camera’s signature heist upon physical space.
Whereas heist films often conclude with a sustained third act in which the participants disperse and go their separate ways, that ending is therefore more or less redundant here, since the action has started to disperse from the moment it started converging – or, rather, only started dispersing because it started converging. No doubt, that’s true of heist films generally – after all, you can’t have dispersal without convergence – but the two processes are utterly conflated here, as if Soderbergh were enacting the post-cinematic devolution of this most classically cinematic of genres. To that end, he presents us with a fractured and abbreviated third act that starts with Jimmy Logan returning most of the money – crossing that threshold one last time – and quickly moves to the subsequent police investigation, with Hilary Swank abruptly taking the stage in the guise of Special Agent Sarah Grayson.
I can’t articulate quite how uncanny it was to see Swank appear at such a late point in the film – a point at which the film almost appears to be over – and she seems to know it as well, reciting her lines in such a stylised and heightened manner, and addressing the camera so directly, that it’s clear that only the most contrived of police procedures will be capable of retrospectively converging the film around the Speedway and sequestering the “money pit” as a self-contained object of scrutiny. Yet as Sarah’s investigation proceeds, Soderbergh interlaces it with flashbacks of the heist that fulfil the exact opposite function, reiterating all the threshold-crossings that precluded the spending spatial isolation of the heist in the first place, and culminating with Clyde’s hand being taken out of the money extraction machine. No surprise, then, that both the police investigation and the film as a whole end on an evocatively dissonant note, and on a perfectly poised threshold of their own, as Soderbegh concludes with Sarah arriving at the bar where Clyde works and asking for a drink, all the while scrutinising his features and making a mental note of the rest of his team as well.
By this stage the Speedway has received its insurance payoff and there’s no need for the investigation to proceed, so it may well be that Grayson is going off script and continuing to look into the heist on her own time. Yet it also feels as if Grayson is on the verge of integrating herself into the heist crew as well, thereby setting up the possibility of a sequel, and perhaps even a franchise, as Clyde tells her that “I’m all about the future.” By ending the film right at the cusp at which Grayson seems ready to reveal her intentions – it could be her very next breath – Soderbergh leaves us poised on the precipice that has animated the heist as a whole, halfway between the film and the world outside the film, or between the film and its franchised future. And in that gesture lies the perfect analogy for Soderbergh’s model of funding and distributing the film, which depended upon using projected earnings from foreign markets as finance capital, and then distributing the film through a modified word-of-mouth structure not unlike the way in which Jimmy eventually shares out the remaining money to his original collaborators. At this stage, it doesn’t seem to have rivalled the revenue of a Hollywood release, but the logic of the film is that this perhaps doesn’t matter, since the message of Logan Lucky is, finally, that the money the heist members get is less likely to pay future dividends than the ingenuity of making it happen in the first place.