Since I watched Logan Lucky a few weeks back, I’ve been thinking about this joke I used to tell.
Channing Tatum and I went to the same college. Before his screen stardom, Tatum was awarded a football scholarship to Glenville State, which is just over a hundred miles north of Boone County, WV, a few years before I spent my freshman year on the same campus.
Like many state universities, West Virginia colleges are primarily attended by students born and raised in the state. There’s a certain reputation carried by the kids of Boone County, WV. When I transferred schools the next year, I found that that reputation followed them to any campus where their accent was recognizable.
“If you have Boone County kids at a party,” I would say, “you have a wild party. But if you have them at more than one party, then you probably have a drug problem and a short college career.”
Boone County is half of the primary setting of Logan Lucky, the home to its trailer-dwelling, slow-speaking, but not really dimwitted outlaw heroes. Boone County isn’t the sort of place you see in movies very often. If memory serves, the last time the area was represented onscreen in a reasonably wide release was in the Dickhouse/MTV production The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, a documentary that observed socio-economic implications with a much more discerning and judgmental eye. In that film, another Boone County joke is levied onscreen, in which the “Boone County mating call” is demonstrated as a shaking bottle of prescription pills.
Of course, that previous film was released a few years before our nation was forced to reckon with its opioid crisis. I attended college years before that. Back then, it didn’t feel as necessary to view the political implications of rural poverty. Today, on the back end of a populist uprising in the most recent American election that very likely will serve only to worsen the problems that inspired the uprising, it is impossible to think of rural poverty, really any poverty, out of its social and political context.
And yet, there’s an almost disorienting sense of apolitical joy and benevolence in Soderbergh’s newest heist film, a politically unexamined affection for its characters. For this native and proud West Virginian, it’s strange to see the heavy affectation of the Boone County accent on screen in a moment in history in which the West Virginia electorate serves as the statistically assured spearhead of a movement that elected constitutional and social crisis, without seeing the residents of the area reduced to novelty humor, examined for cultural motivation, or subjected to cinematic essay.
There isn’t a single joke in Logan Lucky that positions its down-and-out characters down-and-out-ness as a punchline. There are no bumper stickers, no discussions of candidates or platforms, no on-the-nose explanation for the causes of their hardship. And the human-level characterization exceeds that of Soderbergh’s Ocean series, toward which unavoidable comparisons will be made.
It seemed to me, at least through my first three regionally biased watches, that Logan Lucky was a mercifully apolitical film of traditional cinematic celebration, a heist formula that just happened to take place where few films take place and one that had no interest in the socio-economic status of the region, no concern for its Trumpism, just a general admiration for characters who happened to reside there.
But I was wrong to think of it this way, and didn’t fully realize why until I saw another movie weeks later.
Like Jimmy Logan (Tatum’s character in Logan Lucky), Patricia “Patti Cake$” Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) is an inherently likeable hero–charming, sharp, underestimated, determined, resilient seemingly out of her element, and goofy in just the right amount. Though Geremy Jaspar’s new film, named for his character’s stage name, isn’t concerned with a criminal strategy, his protagonist, a down-on-her-luck, white, female Jersey rapper, is, however unlikely, cut from the same cloth and swimming against the same tide as the Logan family.
Both the Logans and Patti are attempting to move forward into some financial success while carrying the weight of generational hopelessness.
In a backwoods bar, Clyde Logan recounts the fabled curse of his family. A lost diamond, a lost lottery ticket, a lost arm, and a lost NFL career. Everything about their lineage is defined by loss, a generational snowball of failure. The opening act of Patti Cake$ positions Patti as the youngest of three struggling women, each living in the same modest house. Patti, who is only 23 years old, already carries the burden of the medical bills from her grandmother’s (Cathy Moriarty) failing health, the responsibility of her mother’s (Bridget Everett) alcoholic self-medication for her despair at having failed at her own dreams, and bill collector phone calls looking for the utility payments for their shared residence.
While this situational description might prepare one for two somewhat despair-ridden film experiences, Logan Lucky and Patti Cake$ land as anything but. Rather, they account for the two most warm and joyful films of 2017, and this distinction is achieved in more ways than just through the the respective protagonists’ underdog triumphs (though, we can’t skim over the fact that between Logan Lucky, the Magic Mike films, and 21 and 22 Jump Street, Tatum has separated himself as being the singular most capable feel-good A-lister movie star in modern ensemble pieces).
Comparable to Soderbergh’s respectful admiration of his characters, Jaspar operates with an unimpeachable love for Patti, her mother, her grandmother, her musical partner Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), and her music mixer and eventual romantic interest Basterd Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie, in what I think is a lock for the most hilarious supporting role of the year). What’s important to note here is that neither Soderbergh nor Jaspar define any member of their ragtag collectives by their apparent working class social status. Their poverty informs their circumstances, but not their characterization. This is a delicate balance, not just for a filmmaker, but for analysis of the film. Quietly, Logan Lucky and Patti Cake$ are movies about things that their characters should possess by default but to which they are unjustly denied access.
Logan Lucky casually observes these injustices in slick-scripted dialogue. The prison from which Clyde and Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) escapes can’t even provide its own clean water supply and Clyde’s bar can’t even offer ice, both because of a chemical spill upriver (a nod to the real 2014 Elk River catastrophe that was never adequately addressed by government agencies). Jimmy Logan, because of a high school football injury, can’t maintain employment in the manual labor jobs to which he’s limited thanks to rigged insurance red tape. The struggling mining industry sees option-less young men like Clyde joining the military and collections of miners like Jimmy crossing state lines for compromised pay at temporary work under the Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Jimmy comes up with his scheme. In Patti Cake$, Patti’s grandmother should have a right to health care, Patti’s mother should be able to bury her deceased family members without bankruptcy, and Patti, in her early 20s, should not have to work two dead-end jobs to make up for the unfairness.
And, implicitly added to this list of things that they should have is the right to exist and be seen as people rather than subjects and statistics of poverty, both in a fictional character sense and in real-life application of understanding those characters. Soderbergh and Jaspar offer this last dignity, not as an act of charity, but of inert recognition of humanity. And this offering highlights the need for our social collective to mind the rest of the wishlist.
Both filmmakers nudge their viewers into this interpretation with a comparative arrangement of class division.
When Jimmy Logan explains to his brother his hair-brained scheme, the quick cut expository monologue veers into a description of the culture of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, once just a massive sports facility that has grown, through the flow of consumer cash, into something large and vulgar. The speedway that the Logan and Bang families attempt to rob is one with high priced condos available for wealthy consumers of NASCAR (the stereotypically white working class sport) to not just watch the event, but to live inside of the facility. The town within the arena, built entirely of frivolously spent money that filters up to billionaire owners like the obscene Max Chilblain (played by sore thumb Seth MacFarlane), is one with its own police force and financial insurance so thorough that the facility can recoup its lost money without even having to count how much is lost. All of this lends an undercurrent of social unrest to Logan Lucky, from the joyfulness of watching Chilblain have his face smashed in two scenes to the somewhat ironic spectacle of LeAnn Rimes singing America, the Beautiful over cinematographer Peter Andrews’ lensing of the superfluous spectacle of the event.
Similarly, in Patti Cake$, we see Patti dispatched by her work with a catering company to more and more lavish events and wealthy homes, until finally she arrives to prepare for a party at the mansion of one of her hip-hop heroes, O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), who dismisses her request to listen for him to her group’s album by calling her worthless and comparing her unfavorably to a piece of art on his wall, which he tells her cost him over two million dollars, way more money than Patti even seems to be asking for in her pursuit of sustainability and creative recognition.
Neither Patti nor the Logans and Bangs are asking for incorporation into the wealthy level of the Speedway culture or over-the-top lifestyles of hip-hop stardom. They’re just trying to get by in a seemingly rigged game.
A lot has been said about the scene in Logan Lucky in which prison rioters make hostage requests of their dumbfounded warden (Dwight Yoakam), including a demand that their library offer access to the rest of the Game of Thrones books, which those of us on the outside of incarceration know have not been written on schedule. Many are quick to point out how comedically poignant this scene is right now but how poorly the humor, in its cultural specificity, might age. But to me, it’s also a symbol of the film’s most necessary message. Most people, even those in the most dire of circumstances, whether they find themselves there through poor decisions or hopeless paths, aren’t asking for much.
But this is all complicated by contemporary poverty’s built-in conditioning forcing the impoverished to accept their circumstances, or, as Jimmy’s old love interest Sylvia Harrison (Katherine Waterston) puts it “You know as well as I do that folks around these parts don’t like the word charity.” They just want the chance to be self-sustaining regular people.
Part of the ad campaign for Logan Lucky included the Fargo-like declaration that the movie is based on true events. While trying to tie the fictional heist to any real theft, attempted or successful, is a bit of a challenge, maybe we should consider that the “true events” that inspired Soderbergh’s film point to our culture’s increasingly violent class division. That’s really happening. In a country with a total wealth that looks inexhaustible and unreachable from the bottom floor, the growing lower class, the shrinking middle class, and the exclusionary upper class need to start reassessing toward a model of responsible, tax-based wealth distribution. That’s just a fact. A true event, if you will. And if steps aren’t taken in that direction, we may start asking and pleading and clawing for our fair share, like Patti. And if that doesn’t work, we might just take it, like the Logans. And we won’t really feel bad about it. In fact, if these two inspiring and non-judgmental films are any indication, we might actually have a good time doing it.