I don’t think anybody really expected Steven Soderbergh to ‘retire’ when he did, as a commercially, and critically acclaimed director. He seemed young at the time, but looking at his filmography do you see his reach and experience; from the indie Sundance-lite Sex Lies and Videotape (1989: both relatively successful commercially and artistically), to the big-budget heists like the Ocean’s trilogy.
It’s funny then that the film he returns with, is about a man who is effectively forced into retirement (or redundancy at least), from his job at the NASCAR circuit located two states away from his home, them citing his limp he sustained in a promising high school football career. Even funnier is that at the time of Soderbergh’s retirement he is reported to have said “If I have to get into a van to do another scout, I’m just going to shoot myself”. Well he must have got over it, because here is a film that features a reliance on cars and vans.
As a result of his sacking, Jimmie Logan (Channing Tatum) conspires with his younger brother Clyde (Adam Driver) to rob the speedway on race-day. Clyde, played with a melancholy and charm by Driver, is laconic and pessimistic and thinks there’s a curse on the family. The name Clyde of course, hints toward the famous couple of bandits, but also it is surely too much of a coincidence to suggest that Driver’s name wasn’t some kind of sub-conscious influence on Soderbergh’s casting as well.
The film though is a question of coincidence and how events unfold. Daniel Craig has the name Joe Bang; an incarcerated explosive ‘expert’ whom the Logan’s, before they can even pull off the heist, must break Bang out of jail, and then return him without raising suspicion. Expertise is a tenuous thing though because these aren’t the flash-suited team of Danny Ocean. But they still know a lot more than you. Instead, expertise is much more local here. Richard Brody in the New Yorker notes the ‘folksiness’ of the film; the characters, in the disenfranchised Deep South of America, at the behest, clearly, of the greater system above them, have cultivated a local knowledge based upon scepticism and realism. Look at Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), Joe’s younger brothers; Jimmy and Clyde under orders from Joe must persuade them to do it, otherwise Joe isn’t in, but since then, they’ve developed a ‘system of morality’ and it would be “a vagrant floylation [sic]” of that system to undertake the job.
The film therefore requires the characters to have an expert understanding of the systems of which they’re trying to rob, but also requires the audience to not deem these people as experts for them to be suprised by their ingenuity. And indeed, it’s about formula and systems, which, as most reviews pertain to, whilst the film is very good, it does feel slightly formulaic, even if, as Brody says, that it is Soderbergh’s own formula. But whilst the characters in Logan Lucky are trying to outdo and manoeuvre through the variety of systems, Soderbergh himself was outdoing the system. His distribution company took responsibility for the whole marketing of the film, which, not only cut on costs, but cut down on the pressure for the film to make massive returns (this piece in The Atlantic talks much more expertly on the intricacies doing so) . And although this may not be the same system that Ocean’s was duping, it doesn’t mean it’s not disconnected from the great grand scheme of things. In fact, it promotes that idea that everything is connected. If the film is formulaic, what propels it for me beyond the criticism, is its reflexiveness: it might be formulaic, but it’s about how the formula works, or how, we make money out of them.
Besides this, it’s not difficult to see the obvious commentary on the state of the nation. There are so many motifs, images symbolic of America, from John Denver tunes, to NASCAR, to Ford Muscle cars, and then Film and Hollywood itself. What gives it a real poignant power though are several nuanced moments. Jimmie’s daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) is competing in a talent contest; planning to sing Rihanna, she does an about-turn when Jimmy turns up unexpectedly after the heist, and instead, she sings her dad’s favourite song, Denver’s ‘West Virginia’. It’s somewhat of a cliché, but it works, and as the crowd joins in, it becomes almost mournful. There is a clear sense within the room of unbeknownst belief in this thing they call Nation, whilst them not being sure if they really believe it any more, but they really want to, almost dutifully. And it catches them all – no matter who they are, regardless of their apparent success or intellect. There’s no liberal sneering or shame away from it. All of us are caught in this big system of the democratic nation, that like, other moments in the film show, are rigged, faulty and being ignored, like the prison system, or ‘correctional facility’ [that prison warden (Dwight Yoakam) emphasises it is]. And the message isn’t overtly political, because the film suggests that none of us, are big enough, or clever enough to understand it. The reflexive power then is in that it focuses on the areas that might have been inclined to vote for somebody like Donald Trump (67.9% of West Virginia were in favour of Trump) – the people that were not getting a system that worked for them voting for somebody who perceptibly doesn’t represent that liberal democratic system either.
What are we doing and how are we doing it? The issue of war and the Iraq war in particular bubbles under the surface. Camouflage material is not just present on military gear but every day clothing in the film. There is a particularly unsettling moment where Joe effectively makes an improvised explosive device from gummy bears, which suggests, like Clyde’s arm, that the war was bred much closer to home than we comfortably accept. Self-pity though is avoided, in the same way there is comedy but there is no satire. Perhaps a criticism could be levelled at the fact these are West Virginian’s with heavy southern accents, but they are experts, you are in their hands, and the fact is they know a hell of a lot more than you about what’s happening in the film.
Yet there are jokes and humour in all of this, and if anything it is the most essential vehicle of emotion here. A joke is a kind of system isn’t it? There’s nothing less funny than explaining a joke, but a joke is reliant on a cooperative understanding of a situation, but with an unexpected and withheld meaning that only one, or several people know, and like the characters in the film often do quite literally, slip in through a metaphorical back door to deliver a laugh or result. Or think of the pun which relies on a transformation of meaning through a word or image that fits multiple meanings like Clyde’s arm. Doesn’t it edify “taking with one hand and giving with the other” which not just ’embodies’ the joke, but the economic implications as well. There are also the repeated shots of Jimmy crossing the state line which could also mean what? Breadline, production line, or a tight-rope he’s financially balanced on; or, of course, that racing derived cliche of crossing some kind of finish line. Or indeed, the punch-line. But he’s finished before the film’s even got going. Redundant from act one.
The whole system of the film is also it’s vehicle, the way it moves, gets from one place to another. And in some way this reminded me of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012) in that not only are actors passengers in these engines and vehicles of what we call film, but that on some level (and not a classically postmodern one) we’re all actors, taking on roles for entertainment, nation, democracy, and most depressingly for the necessity of making money. And rather than it being virtuoso, it’s instead quite sad that we can occupy and be all these people, these many different roles.