Steven Soderbergh Returns to Filmmaking With Fun Heist Movie 'Logan Lucky'

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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A scene from 'Logan Lucky.'
A scene from 'Logan Lucky.'Credit: Claudette Barius / Fingerprint
Uri Klein
Uri Klein

What a fun movie. “Logan Lucky” is the first feature Steven Soderbergh has directed since he announced his retirement in 2013 (that year he also made “Side Effects,” a confused, nightmarish thriller). But then he didn’t exactly seclude himself on a desert island: In 2013 he also directed the HBO production “Behind the Candelabra,” about the life of the extravagant pianist Liberace, and in the four years since, he has been producing for television.

I’ve always felt ambivalent about Soderbergh. He is clearly an intelligent and talented filmmaker, and the adventurous, playful nature of his work has often drawn me in. At the same time, however, I did not find all his movies to have the artistic validity required of truly enjoyable, substantive filmmaking. Soderbergh first won fame with his debut picture, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” for which he received the Palme d’Or at Cannes. He was the youngest director ever to win this prestigious prize, and the film remains one of his best. Since then, however, many of his movies have been interesting, but they also stumbled due to his fondness for blending the mainstream and the experimental.

I have not missed Soderbergh in the four years since he claimed to retire, but it’s nice to have him back. It’s especially fortunate that he has made his comeback with a good picture; otherwise things might have gotten embarrassing. Not only is “Logan Lucky” a good picture, but the time away has apparently done Soderbergh good, since this film attests to a creative energy and enthusiasm that manifest themselves in a sweeping artistic freedom.

“Logan Lucky” is a heist picture, a genre that Soderbergh has tried his hand at before in “Ocean’s Eleven” and its two sequels, his biggest box-office hits to date. But “Logan Lucky” is a much better movie than they were, because it has more to it than an account of an ostentatious robbery involving a diverse gang of characters, some of whom were played in the “Ocean” pictures by stars who relished their own status too much, adding a tinge of arrogance. There is a robbery in “Logan Lucky,” but there is also an account of a place and of a human and social environment, which are the sources of the movie’s depth.

“Logan Lucky” takes us on a journey through the southern United States – it is set in West Virginia and North Carolina – a journey to the margins of American society. It’s a pleasure to follow the places where the plot lands us, to watch the faces of the characters and listen to the way they speak. But beyond that, the film has something to say about social and cultural desperation, a message that does not make it any less funny, and only enhances its open-ended narrative structure.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is a kind of all-American archetype, a former high school football star who never lived up to his youthful promise. He is divorced and has a daughter. At the beginning of the film, he loses his blue-collar job because his employers think his efficiency is compromised by his limp, the result of the same old football injury that ended his athletic career. Jimmy then decides to use information he was privy to at his old job to rob the small fortune that accumulates at the local track during a NASCAR race.

Suspense and pleasure

There are two kinds of heist movies: those that use the planning and execution of the robbery as the basis for an existential allegory, and those that use the same materials to tell an amusing, frivolous story. Soderbergh manages to combine both. Jimmy naturally needs partners: the first is his brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), a gloomy bartender who lost a hand as a soldier in Iraq and has an intimate relationship with his prosthesis; and the second is his younger sister (Riley Keough, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter), a hairdresser who is also a top-notch driver. She has long fingernails, each painted a different color, which the movie often puts on vivid display.

To break into the safe where the money is held, Jimmy needs an explosives expert, who appears in the form of the marvelously named Joe Bang, played by a platinum-haired Daniel Craig in a delightful comic performance. Joe knows how to make bombs out of cleaning supplies, gummy bears and more, and he brings his two pothead brothers (Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson) onboard; unfortunately, however, he is serving out a prison term, and to pull off the robbery, the gang has to break him out of prison and then smuggle him back in before anyone notices. Jimmy’s family is said to be cursed, and even without a curse on it, Joe’s family isn’t exactly what we call “normative.” These two clans join forces to carry out the robbery, whose rocky path through multiple reversals and crises we get to follow with a great deal of suspense and pleasure.

Much of the fun of “Logan Lucky” comes from the way it hops around the central story, at times digressing from it into subplots that enrich the movie and the human and social portrait it creates. There is Jimmy’s enjoyable chance encounter with Sylvia (Katherine Waterston), a nurse who drives around the area in a trailer and charms him into getting a tetanus shot. His daughter, meanwhile, competes in one of those horrific beauty pageants for girls common in America, especially in the South and Midwest, though Soderbergh’s portrayal of this practice is amused rather than grotesque. And Hilary Swank is entertaining as an FBI agent who is one big, showy display of professionalism and toughness.

At the center of “Logan Lucky” stands the quiet, steady presence of Channing Tatum; no other young American actor today is quite as able to give a convincing performance of a working-class man. And if the movie as a whole is enjoyable, that could not have been the case if the director and cast had not enjoyed making it. Their pleasure is evident, and it is contagious. “Logan Lucky” is a movie that somehow winks at you even while having a certain seriousness, even melancholy, at its core. Above all, Soderbergh is clearly aware of his movie’s cinematic sources, whose freedom and the meaning it carries can be traced back to the French New Wave (as all-American as Soderbergh’s films seem, his best work – “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” “Out of Sight” and now this movie – has a clear affinity to modern European cinema). 

As always, Soderbergh did his own cinematography and editing, this time without using a pseudonym (in the past he used to bill “Peter Andrews” as the cinematographer and “Mary Ann Bernard” as the editor). This time he left the pseudonym to the screenwriter, Rebecca Blunt, whose identity remains unknown.