LOGAN LUCKY, Steven Soderbergh’s return to theatrically distributed feature filmmaking after an announced retirement, is very far from the grand statement one might expect after a long period of withdrawal and seclusion. In point of fact, Soderbergh has never really disappeared from the scene, and he’s never been so precious in conducting his career to succumb to the eventizing ballyhoo that obsesses a Tarantino or a Nolan, and so he has kept working at something or another at a brisk clip.
His “comeback,” if we want to call it that, is a piece of candy-colored cracker-barrel Americana. It has a heist at its center, which relates it to his quite successful trio of Oceans films, but its setting is Appalachia—Boone County, West Virginia, and western North Carolina, specifically—and, in its interest in the details of lives lived paycheck to paycheck in regions of the country little-depicted in popular cinema, it is closer to something like Bubble (2005), shot in the Ohio River towns of Parkersburg, West Virginia, and Belpre, Ohio, or Magic Mike (2012), with its early scenes of men at work laying Spanish tile in West Central Florida.
Logan Lucky shares the latter film’s star, Channing Tatum, here playing Jimmy, a Boone County native who lost his shot at football stardom years ago when he blew out his knee, and who, when first encountered, is about to lose his job patching up sinkholes under the NASCAR Charlotte Motor Speedway. It’s in the immediate aftermath of this professional humiliation that Jimmy comes to his brother, Clyde (Adam Driver)—a bartender who’s learned to practice mixology with one hand after returning from his military service with a rubber mitt—with a plan to rob the Speedway in broad daylight. The undertaking is to be a family affair, with Jimmy and Clyde enlisting the services of their sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), a hairdresser and notorious speed-demon, and the three Bang brothers, each of whom brings a different liability—Fish and Sam (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson) are not the sharpest crayons in the pack, while safe-cracker big brother Joe (Daniel Craig) will have to be sprung from prison, kept beyond its walls for the duration of the job, and returned undetected with an airtight alibi.
In the planning, execution, and aftermath of the heist, Soderbergh and his screenwriter, a mysterious and possibly fictitious personage credited as “Rebecca Blunt,” make free use of ellipses. They keep the viewer ever-so-slightly out of the loop in the planning stages of the caper, withholding essential information while allowing us teasing glimpses of objects to be employed therein: Why is Mellie painting cockroaches on the coffee table? What are those firefighting helmets in the trunk for? And—after the deed’s been done—what’s up with Jimmy’s apparent change of heart?
Working in the register of the country-fried caper, Logan Lucky displays a great sense of playfulness toward “authenticity” even while trafficking heavily in the very concept, weaving variations on the theme of the counterfeit throughout the film. Its male leads have honest-to-God flyover-country working-class bona fides—Driver is a Marine Corps vet, Tatum an ex-jock Mississippian who can operate a bulldozer without looking like an impostor. He is introduced digging around under the hood of a dinged-up 1983 Ford pickup in the company of his young daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie, giving the most charming, unaffected child’s performance in recent memory), while discoursing on the history of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”—an Appalachian anthem, he notes, that was written by Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert at a time when they’d never set foot in the name-checked West Virginia. And yet, counterfeit abounds: Here, we have Georgia locations doubling for the Mountain State; Craig putting on his best hillbilly accent (naked becomes nekkid) while Seth MacFarlane, playing an energy-drink magnate and stock-car team owner, goes limey; passing references to blackface and whiteface; and Sadie appearing at a Little West Virginia pageant in a dolled up JonBenét Ramsey–esque pretense of adulthood. The labored sense of gritty legitimacy that weighs down most recent attempts at the blue-collar American action movie (Hell or High Water being one prominent instance) here becomes the stuff of comedy. Sebastian Stan’s salt-of-the-earth NASCAR driver, profiled in a brief digression, is revealed as a raw-food-obsessed nut, an equivalent to the breed of careerist country musicians who sing about cheap beer and honky-tonks but lives off acai bowls and juice bars. There’s also a good bit where Keough needles Jimmy’s ex-wife’s McMansion-dwelling, Ford dealership-owning husband (David Denman) into taking a stick shift off the lot by mocking his dependence on automatics; authenticity, we see, is strictly a preoccupation for the middle-class.
What Soderbergh understands and revels in, as working-class hero Andy Warhol did, is the fact that authentic homespun American life is shot through with a generous dose of artifice—artificial sweeteners and colors that appear nowhere in nature. Soderbergh is acting as his own DP here under his usual “Peter Andrews” pseudonym, shooting on a RED digital camera with Leica Summilux-C lenses, and these give his widescreen frame—invariably teeming with bright life and incident—an ultra-sharp pellucid, almost glassy deep focus unlike anything in classic, grain-rich 35-mm Cinemascope. In constructing his contemporary Appalachia, Soderbergh gets a sense of everyday life that’s bigger than life. He has, somewhat perversely, made a drive-in movie for the hi-def age, one in which flat screens are ubiquitous—it’s a nice gag that a mounted TV in a hallway plays the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte as background visual noise throughout the film’s mock “prison riot”—in fact an elaborate put-on covering up other subterfuges. The color palette is a combination of cotton-candy pink, My Little Pony band-aids, manicures that glitter like an Arabian Nights treasure trove, the cacophony of sponsorship logos on stock cars, gas stations worthy of Ed Ruscha, and ubiquitous red-white-and-blue gear. This is one of the only movies to take full advantage of the pomp of a major sporting event preshow, replete with an F-14 flyover and LeAnn Rimes belting out the national anthem.
As a schemer and do-it-yourself-er, Jimmy is a figure after inveterate tinkerer Soderbergh’s own wheeler-dealer heart. In lining up the money for Logan Lucky, the director pursued a new distribution model intended to cut out studio participation (and interference) entirely—a model that leans heavily on his preexisting celebrity and the participation of salable celebrities, and so no more practicable and sustainable for most filmmakers than Radiohead album giveaways. While the movie exists thanks to its stars, it’s the bit players who make it play: Along with the abovementioned Denman, honorable mentions are due to Rebecca Koon as a chatty salon patron who comes in for a purple wash and drives a purple El Dorado; eastern Kentucky homeboy Dwight Yoakam as the prison warden; and Jon Eyez as a convict who very nearly walks off with the movie in a single scene. (The credits also list “Wild and Wonderful” West Virginia legend Jesco White, star of the cult 1991 documentary Dancing Outlaw and a clear sartorial inspiration for the film, though I failed to catch him in my screening.)
Not every bit of business in this very busy movie lands soundly. MacFarlane, though impeccably cast as a dead-eyed, imminently hateable creep, occupies an amount of screen time disproportionate to what he brings in terms of narrative drive or comic pleasure, and the introduction of Hilary Swank as an agent investigating the speedway heist comes too late to be anything but an invitation to a sequel. Soderbergh seems content to work loose here, to leave a few plot threads trailing off. His decision might seem counterintuitive, as the heist movie is classically an opportunity to show off directorial chops—see, for instance, the first half of Bertrand Bonello’s lubricious, machine-tooled Nocturama (2016), which, in turn, invokes the spirit of Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955). But where those films wear their virtuosity on their sleeves, Logan Lucky feels like the work of a filmmaker with nothing to prove, neither sententious seriousness of purpose nor technical knowhow. Freed from such lofty imperatives, the movie can instead focus on the minutiae that matter—Clyde mixing a martini with dexterous flair, Jimmy’s meet-cute in a mobile medical center, the way Sadie’s mother (Katie Holmes) reaches in from out of frame to twirl one of her daughter’s pigtails—all of which helps to create the larger world in which our story is taking place. Logan Lucky isn’t perfect in every measurement, but it has about it a feeling of jerry-rigged ingenuity that’s ultimately more appropriate than perfection would be.
Logan Lucky is now playing in select theaters.