Opening in Chicago this Friday are two of the best American films of the year: Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky and the Safdie brothers’ Good Time. Although the milieu in which each movie is set could not be more different (urban, multi-ethnic Queens and rural, lily-white West Virginia, respectively), both are heist pictures focused on a pair of criminal siblings that are loaded from beginning to end with visually inventive, comedic and suspenseful set pieces. Along with Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, another original heist film that proved to be a surprise box office hit when it was released earlier this summer, they suggest that American genre cinema may yet rise like a phoenix from the ashes of superhero franchise-dom. Although all of these directors use genre conventions to different ends (in the case of Wright, I think the primary virtue of his virtuoso robbery sequences is the way they serve as unlikely love letters to the simple act of listening to music), they all point to the future of the movies-as-theatrical-experience in ways that feel fresh and exciting.
Much has been made of how Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh’s feature-film comeback after a self-imposed four-year hiatus (during which time he worked in television), was financed through the pre-sale of foreign and home-video/on-demand rights. This allowed the ambitious producer/director the freedom of partnering with a true indie distributor (Bleecker Street Films) and having not just creative control over the movie but also unprecedented control over its advertising budget and release schedule and bypassing the use of the proverbial Hollywood studio “middlemen” almost entirely – an unheard-of proposition for a film with a 30 million dollar budget that features movie stars like Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Katie Holmes and Hillary Swank in its cast. This has led to some speculation in the industry press that the potential success of Logan Lucky could make it a “game changer” and that, as a result, many Hollywood studio executives actively want it to fail.
This could also be why, although independent to the core in terms of how it was produced and is being distributed, Logan Lucky feels like a Hollywood film: it’s an entertaining crowd-pleaser that shrewdly attempts to court viewers on both the left and right wings of the political spectrum. Tatum’s character, Jimmy Logan, hatches an elaborate scheme to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway but only after being unfairly fired from his construction job for having a “pre-existing condition,” a sly attack on Trumpism and Republican health-care initiatives by Soderbergh and his screenwriter, the pseudonymous Rebecca Blunt. But the filmmakers also aggressively court the kind of “white working-class voters” who rarely go to the movies – and supposedly swung the last Presidential election in Donald Trump’s favor – by making sops to “patriotism” (e.g., admiring shots of soldiers in uniform, a zippy NASCAR montage, “America the Beautiful” on the soundtrack, and, most pointedly, the xenophobia of making the film’s one unlikable character, amusingly played by Seth MacFarlane, a foreigner who makes jokes at the expense of a disabled U.S. military vet).
In other words, Logan Lucky is a film that invites everyone to identify with its little-guys-against-the-system heroes in a vaguely anti-authoritarian, us vs. them, Smokey and the Bandit kind of way. As an entertainment, it succeeds admirably: it’s a fun movie about people having fun, full of juicy performances and great visual and verbal wit. It’s everything that a summer popcorn movie should be but all too rarely is, and that’s a very welcome thing in 2017. The Safdie brothers’ Good Time, by contrast, is trickier, more troubling and ultimately more satisfying: a breathlessly paced “thriller” centered on an unlikable protagonist (though brilliantly played by a charismatic actor!) that continually challenges viewers by making disturbing asides about racism in contemporary America – beginning with the fact that the pre-credits heist is pulled off by the main characters, brothers Connie and Nick Nikas (Robert Pattinson and co-director Benny Safdie), in blackface – but also never slowing down quite enough to allow us to process what’s happening until it’s over.
This provocative mishmash of contradictory elements, and the almost-assaultive quality with which they’re put across, has proven too much for some critics, including the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott who accused the Safdie brothers of including “racial signifiers” that he feels can be dubiously interpreted in a multitude of ways and that he doesn’t think the filmmakers ultimately care anything about. My own take is that the Safdies are subtly but unambiguously critiquing Connie Nikas for the way he plays the race card throughout the film. Just look at the memorable scene set in Adventureland: Connie uses his white privilege to his advantage, breaking and entering an amusement park after hours to find a bottle of abandoned LSD worth thousands of dollars then walking away scot free with his white criminal accomplice while allowing two innocent black people to take the fall and go to jail. The scene is about as damning an indictment of racial profiling as one could ask for. I suspect what really makes Scott uncomfortable is the fact that the Safdies are asking viewers to admire Connie’s cleverness in thinking on his feet and improvising a plan as he goes along while also finding him morally reprehensible.
I also don’t know what Scott is talking about when he faults the film for its “bad lighting” and “avoidance of prettiness,” qualities that would be better ascribed to the Safdies’ previous film, the urban junkie-drama Heaven Knows What (perhaps Scott saw the film he expected to see?). While there is a similar sense of gritty verisimilitude on display (especially in the extensive use of exterior New York City locations, which harkens back to the Film School Generation of the 1970s in the way it turns urban spaces into a giant playground), Good Time is also more daring in how it juxtaposes this “street cred” with a bolder sense of aesthetic stylization – one where helicopter shots, neon lighting, bodies-in-constant-motion and a pulse-pounding electronic score all blend together into a gorgeous and expressionistic swirl. At the end of the film, when Connie’s luck has finally run out, we see him in an extreme overhead shot attempting to run from the police but looking as helpless and trapped as a rat in a maze. It’s a marriage of form and content worthy of comparison to Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock, a moment of pure cinema to renew one’s faith in the medium.