Mellie Logan: “You think we’re destined to repeat the past?”
Joe Bang: “Nope, I’m all about the future.”
Making a film is a lot like robbing a bank. First, you have to decide to do it. Then, you need a plan, and a backup plan. You must choose your partners carefully, expect the unexpected, and remember that shit happens. And most importantly, you have to know when to walk away. From conception to execution, a film’s creators must come together, scheme, and pull off the job. Steven Soderbergh said as much in an interview with The Guardian, explaining why he loves making heist movies: “I think it’s because heists are so much like making a film. You’re getting a gang together, there are external forces beyond your control. This may work, this may not. You could end up in movie jail. And it’s important to remember that panic has never solved anything in the history of the world. The analogies are very clear.”
It’s probably inevitable that critics have compared Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky (2017) to his earlier heist film, Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Soderbergh himself once called it “Ocean’s Eleven on cement blocks,” and a character in the film actually refers to their heist as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven” on the news. But Logan Lucky is somehow both bigger and smaller than Ocean’s Eleven—while it focuses more on its characters, it also reflects the current mood of America, and reveals the country’s failure to deliver on the American dream. Ultimately, it subverts our expectations of working-class characters, and of heist movies themselves.
Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) has just lost his job working construction at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when he finds out that his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) and their daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) are moving away with Bobbie Jo’s new husband Moody (David Denman) and his kids. Jimmy has no money to fight the decision. He utters the code word “cauliflower” to his brother, Clyde Logan (Adam Driver). Clyde reluctantly agrees to help him rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. It’s actually a heist within a heist: In order to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway, the Logans first have to break an explosives expert, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), out of prison—and once they’ve finished the job, they’ll have to break him back in. The Logans team up with Bang’s brothers, Fish and Sam (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson), to get the job done. “NASCAR is like America!” proclaims one of the Bang Brothers. And if NASCAR is a microcosm of America, its own city with its own police force, then by deciding to rob NASCAR, the Logans and the Bangs are essentially taking on America itself—and we root for them.
Logan Lucky challenges stereotypes, undermining our notions about the working class. The film empathizes 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. “They surprise you with their thought process and their worldview,” Soderbergh told The New York Times. “The trick is to use stereotypes to set the table and then hopefully surprise people.”
Logan Lucky is the cosmic opposite of a Jean-Pierre Melville heist film, where the players are masculine, cold, calculating, dangerous, doomed. Logan Lucky’s heist participants aren’t strangers who will never meet again. They’re family. If there is any noir fatalism here, it’s in Clyde’s belief that the Logans are cursed. But really, there’s no hubris, and no curse either (unless you consider capitalism a “curse”)—only bad circumstances, a country that neglects the Logans and people like them. It doesn’t matter whether the Logans work hard or cheat the system; it will always work against them, as evidenced by the specter of FBI Agent Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank) that haunts them at the film’s end.
Although screenwriter Rebecca Blunt began writing the script in 2014, Logan Lucky somehow manages to tap into social and political issues currently coming to a head in 2017. No one in the film’s world is quite whole. Jimmy represents the fiction of the American dream: he had a brilliant future as a star quarterback and a girl who loved him, until he sustained a career-ending injury. Jimmy’s boss Cal blames his lost job on a preexisting condition—“let go for liability reasons involving insurance.” Jimmy’s brother Clyde loses his arm during the Iraq War. Clyde casually mentions “a chemical leak upstream” that has poisoned the town’s water supply. Katherine Waterston’s character Sylvia Harrison, a physician’s assistant, just wants to give people free healthcare from her mobile medical unit—most of its funding does not come from the government but “private donations” from grateful West Virginians. Even a three-legged dog has a brief cameo. At best, the government has neglected Logan Lucky’s people; at worst, it has downright fucked them. They are quite literally crippled, poisoned, and imprisoned by the system.
While Ocean’s Eleven’s antagonist is obvious, and easy to dislike—Danny Ocean’s ex-wife’s casino-owning new boyfriend—Logan Lucky’s “villain” is harder to pinpoint. It is less an antagonist, and more an oppressive presence: essentially, American capitalism, best embodied by Seth MacFarlane’s Max Chilblain, an “entrepreneur” who spends his time promoting himself and peddling an energy drink called “To the Max.” In his onscreen introduction, he brags about his Twitter follower count and complains about infringements on his freedom of speech. When Jimmy torches Max’s van, Max’s concern is the cost of the van.
Max Chilblain sponsors NASCAR driver Dayton White (Sebastian Stan). When Dayton doesn’t win the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race, Max is pissed—as if the NASCAR audience has more interest in brands than drivers, than people. Dayton tells Max that no one is rooting for his brand to cross the finish line. Soderbergh gave MacFarlane clear instructions on his character: “I don’t care what you do with this guy, just know that he has to create instantaneous hatred by anybody who sees him. Like it has to be physical, how much you can’t stand this guy.” MacFarlane succeeds.
But Max Chilblain isn’t Logan Lucky’s only example of the ridiculousness of the rich and powerful. There’s the Purple Lady, one of Jimmy’s sister Mellie’s (Riley Keough) hairdressing clients, an elderly woman who fixates on royal colors, tells Jimmy to pay his bills, and asks him whether he’s “a Unabomber type” because he doesn’t want to use a cellphone. There’s Warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam), a man more interested in preserving his prison’s reputation than the welfare of its inmates. Special Agent Grayson seems to want to solve the crime out of spite—even though CMS received an insurance payout and has lost interest in finding the culprits. Bobbie Jo lives in an enormous house with Moody, who’s expanding his car dealership but doesn’t seem to know much about it—to him, a car is just a status symbol. Mellie has more knowledge of cars than the man who sells them.
Ironically, it’s the apathy, smallness, and selfishness of the rich and powerful that helps the Logans and the Bangs get away with the heist. Warden Burns wants to cover his ass, Dayton White wants to preserve his pride, CMS is satisfied because they got their money back and then some. In other heist movies, characters are often punished, fated to end up in prison or die. But the Logans and the Bangs succeed because their motives are pure. Even Jimmy’s deception—hiding the money from his family and the Bang Brothers, and pretending he gave it back—is selfless. It’s for them, so they won’t be implicated in the crime.
And it’s Jimmy Logan’s selflessness and love for his daughter that makes him a hero. Forces outside of his control conspire to keep him away from his daughter: divorce, his ex-wife moving away, the loss of his job, a system where the odds are against him. But Jimmy makes it to Sadie’s beauty pageant, and it’s the beating heart of this film; the real moment of triumph, the emotional climax. It has nothing to do with the NASCAR race, which is barely shown, or even the heist itself. America’s philosophy is to win, to be the best, and if there is a curse on the Logans, it’s this. Sadie adopts it when she gets caught up in the hollowness of her new life with her bourgeois stepfamily. She pouts about not getting first place at the race at the film’s beginning. “It only matters if you win,” she says, even though she earned a ribbon. For the beauty pageant, she believes she needs to diet, and needs the best song, the best fake hair, a fake tan. She plans on singing Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” which she thinks will guarantee a win. But Sadie’s quiet epiphany is that love matters more than winning—the moment she realizes her dad came to see her, she chooses to sing his favorite song, John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” instead. Ultimately, both Jimmy and his daughter overcome the Logan—and American—curse.
Logan Lucky is a rare thing: a heist film where no one gets hurt. Instead, nearly everyone involved or affected by the heist is rewarded. During their preparations, the Logans and the Bangs send a CMS office worker a birthday cake and wreck her car. At the film’s end, she finds a pink cake box in her car’s passenger seat—presumably full of money. A prison inmate who helps orchestrate the prison riot receives champagne and money upon his release. Clyde Logan gets a new mechanical hand. Joe Bang gets a second nest egg, buried just where his brother’s wife found the first. And Sylvia Harrison gets a massive private donation to her medical mobile unit, an envelope full of cash, covered in My Little Pony bandaids. The Logans and the Bangs figuratively right the country’s wrongs, true hee-haw heroes in a story more Robin Hood than noir. In spite of the perception of others, Logan Lucky’s characters are sharp, and they are good-hearted, and giving. In the words of a woman on the Boone County local news, “I hope they never catch ‘em.”