Since his Sundance debut with sex, lies and videotape (1989), helping redefine independent American cinema, Soderbergh walks between the experimental self-reflexivity of Schizopolis (1996), emphasising fictionality and the construction of its characters, and mainstream fare, like heist remake Ocean’s trilogy (2001-07) and Magic Mike (2012). Soderbergh struggles against the established system: as he explains in Film Comment, his experience on Che (2008) led Soderbergh to “simplify my process”, and not make “serious films anymore”. As he comments in The New York Times, Soderbergh “really lost my interest as a director […] in anything that smells important. […] I left that in the jungle somewhere.”
But Soderbergh’s return from retirement is a fallacy. As he mentions in The Guardian, he rejected painting: Soderbergh had been “shooting my mouth off for a long time”, making “declarative statements” he had to “walk back”. Although Behind the Candelabra (2013) symbolised a career end, Soderbergh never stopped working, directing The Knick (2014-15) and his monochrome regrade of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) and reedits of Psychos (1960/98) and Heaven’s Gate: The Butcher’s Cut (1980). As Soderbergh comments, he quickly became involved with new projects, directing HBO’s branching narrative app/series Mosaic and executive producing Scott Frank’s series Godless.
Logan Lucky’s model is itself experimental, questioning established distribution models and favouring creative control. As Soderbergh says in Film Comment, the film’s financial structure is “nothing that a studio would do”. The New York Times describes cast working for scale, with marketing money raised through selling digital rights to Amazon. Soderbergh worked with Bleecker Street, editing the trailer himself and refusing to test with audiences; Soderbergh had spent only 15% of advertising 3 weeks before release. As he comments, releasing trailers “four months in advance is ridiculous” within a landscape of consumption. Though “Joseph E. Levine was doing this 55 years ago”, Soderbergh argues cinema has become a “war of attrition”. Speaking in Little White Lies, Soderbergh argues “vertical integration” creates an atmosphere without “turnover in ideology”, unlike the failures of the studio system in the late 1960s.
But Logan Lucky is also positioned against socio-political debates, beyond the working class of Blue Collar (1978) or Norma Rae (1979). Trump’s election has ignited renewed national consciousness around the Midwest and the South, and broader questions of voting rights, gerrymandering, shifting population centres, the growth of cities and decline of industry. Though Ta-Nehisi Coates notes this perception of the white working class is partly imaginary, Strangers in their Own Land and Hillbilly Elegy (2016) feed this narrative, whether intended by its authors. But the South is not a monolith, comprising everyday people with individual issues and stories. Documentaries like Sherman’s March (1986) capture some of those perspectives, reconciling the legacy of the American Civil War with attitudes towards race, sexuality and religion. As Vance writes, though seen as “hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash”, for him they are “neighbors, friends and family.” As Soderbergh mentions in The New York Times, he was drawn towards “empathy for working-class characters who get to be more than caricatures”, though using “stereotypes to set the table”. But as Soderbergh points out in Little White Lies, the “rural, southern audience […] didn’t show up”, with West Virginia near the bottom. Though marketing “ignored New York and LA”, top grossing screens were in both.
Though Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) never strips, he isn’t so far from Magic Mike’s Mike Lane, trying to make a living in a world struggling to support him. A construction worker beneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Jimmy is affected by healthcare: walking with a limp, bureaucracy declares Jimmy as having a pre-existing medical condition, highlighting the ridiculousness of bosses never knowing the people working under them forced to make cuts. As Vance writes of the Rust Belt work ethic, workers have a “feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself”, unlike “the larger economic landscape of modern America.” The stadium stands above, lights blasting, customers and drivers literally above him. As Soderbergh mentions in Film Comment, screenwriter Rebecca Blunt extrapolated from a news story about “giant sinkholes [that] opened up under the Charlotte Motor Speedway”, creating a “subterranean world”. Soderbergh offers an alternative perspective from what we might presume about the Coca Cola 600, with NASCAR drivers and Fox analyst Jeff Gordon appearing in cameos.
West Virginia strives independence: Jimmy is untethered from the internet, without phone contract or social media account, keeping his phone solely to store images of his daughter. At the bar run by his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), the fight with businessman Max (Seth MacFarlane) is a fight against the tourist eye: Max wants to exploit the bar for Instagram posts, even wanting to turn his burning car, lit aflame by Clyde’s Molotov cocktail, into a social media spectacle. The prison warden, Burns, contends against government intervention, covering up a riot and avoiding official visits. But as Wesley Morris writes, the prison has its own inherent bias, noting the framing of white characters with “black prisoners sat in the distance”. Working in a mobile clinic and delivering tetanus shots with My Little Pony plasters, Jimmy’s school friend Sylvia (Katherine Waterson) is testament to the small world, losing funding and relying upon private donations. Soderbergh is interested in West Virginian unity: school performances, natters in hairdressers, sports, county fairs, beauty pageants. Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish Bang (Jack Quaid), spending most of their time on the sofa, might have the pretence of religious faith, as much a product of their upbringing as anything else, seeking moral justification for a federal crime, but their pretence falls apart. In a humorous diversion, a woman drives along in her purple car, demanding she gets to church on time.
Communal identity is also created through music: in the opening, we learn the Logans’ love of Take Me Home, Country Roads (1971), performed on stage by his 10-year old daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) in an ode to her father during the pageant, replacing her performance of Rihanna’s Umbrella (2007), evoking the audience’s hearts both inside and outside the film’s world. As Karen Han points out, Denver’s music has dominated Free Fire, Okja and Alien: Covenant. As Han writes, each film must be “in line with Denver’s ideals” of “peace and compassion” to receive approval, using “musical shorthand” for “preaching empathy” and provoking “sentimentality”. As artist LeAnn Rimes performs America the Beautiful at the Coca Cola 600, we witness the ritualism tied to musical identity and patriotism, refracted through NASCAR. As Soderbergh mentions on The Empire Film Podcast, he worked with David Holmes on creating the music selection, condensing 350 songs down to 20 and limiting original score, wanting dramatic scenes to play on their own.
Logan Lucky is about the familial and local: Jimmy visits Sadie, negotiating his relationship with ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes), her new partner, and her sister Mellie (Riley Keough). As Soderbergh reflects in Film Comment, he anticipated viewers questioning why he “[came] out of retirement” to create a “light piece of entertainment”, but with a “broader emotional undercurrent” than Ocean’s Eleven. As Soderbergh points out on The Empire Film Podcast, Tatum rarely gets to play these parts; his restrained style revels in intimacy, Soderbergh’s actors never leaving their roles, working for a couple of hours with no break in energy. Clyde’s background relies upon the personal, defending his service in Iraq (a personal note for Driver, who spent two years training in the Marines) against the taunts of Max, his prosthetic arm a reminder and marker of his reliance on forces beyond him. The loss and subsequent retrieval and replacement of Clyde’s prosthetic arm reminds us of the importance of objects beyond items, tied to our very sense of self.
Logan Lucky’s heist conventions may seem implausible, involving Clyde crashing his car into a storefront, sentenced to prison as a means to consult with Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and shovelling money through the pneumatic tube system underneath the speedway. In a black and white uniform, never an orange jumpsuit, Joe’s masculinity contrasts against Bond: blonde hair, tattoos, his shirtless and naked form and Southern accent. As he licks an egg with salt, he defies us to look at his ridiculousness; he creates explosives out of gummy bears, beyond more cinematic devices in a security conscious world, with Craig somehow achieving his most confident role. The speedway’s levels – vendors at top, evading foreman Cal (Jim O’Heir) through the car park – might allude to the Vegas casino in Ocean’s Eleven, but Soderbergh keeps viewers in suspense even when he’s less flashy. As Soderbergh comments in Film Comment, he had “no desire” for shooting a race”, given the outcome is “unnecessary”, interested instead in the “background” to “create a slice of something without having to eat the whole pie.”
Soderbergh differentiates from Ocean’s Eleven’s faster editing, commenting in The Empire Film Podcast that he refused zooms, interested instead in movement, composition and cutting. The TV news report from the prison enshrines the heist’s crew as folklore heroes as “Ocean’s 7/11”. Though the heist in Ocean’s Eleven had a righteousness, Logan Lucky invokes a moral dimension. Structurally, Soderbergh wanted to avoid direct parallels, avoiding the “explaining scene” but creating an escalating sense of it “happening in front of you”. Our protagonists return to where they were, deploying a cyclical narrative: in montage, we see Joe in the same bed in prison; Sam and Fish laying on the same couch; Jimmy standing by stage edge during his daughter’s spectacular performance lit only in darkness, unable to grasp a larger relationship. As Soderbergh comments in Little White Lies, Soderbergh deviated from the “fantasy films” of the Ocean’s series, interested instead in something more “earth-bound”, allowing the film’s progression to “flip” its stereotypes to allow the viewer to “feel differently about the characters than you did at the beginning”. The team repay their victims to right wrongs, from Naaman’s paper envelope to Gleema Purdue’s birthday cake. Through the final act, with FBI agent Sarah Grayson’s (Hilary Swank), Soderbergh shifts from subversion to formula as Joe uncovers bags of money in the dirt once more, hinting towards an ongoing partnership that brings the band back together: creating the possibility of a sequel whether it exists within the mind’s eye or as a material possibility.
Logan Lucky’s recurring comedic dimension is a manifestation of the strengths of Soderbergh’s style. The scenes in the prison may seem surreal: rioting prisoners make their demands known, wanting library access to George R R Martin’s final volumes in A Song of Ice and Fire (1996-present), only to be shocked to discover The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring haven’t been published yet, tapping into a universal frustration amongst fantasy fans. Soderbergh took advantage of both available and practical lighting. As he details of his process in the Film Comment interview, using the RED EPIC he adjusted the film’s “color space”, avoiding the desaturated projected look in favour of pushing up the colour values. As he muses, every shot “should be a piece of a story”, not as “a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row.” Soderbergh’s approach to digital filmmaking technology is to embrace it, interested in the increasing freedom of the camera, speculating on “a camera that you can just Velcro to the wall”, noting its transformative effect on documentary cinema. Though Soderbergh’s style is largely held together by its simplicity, it is not without directorial voice. Soderbergh’s scenes in the car between Logan and Sadie are masterful, capturing the bond of their relationship without seeking to present anything more.