In Logan Lucky, a funny thing happens on the way to six Appalachia roughnecks ripping off a packed-to-the-nosebleeds NASCAR track. Actually, a slew of funny things happen. An atavistic Channing Tatum punctuates a barroom brawl by hurling his opponents’ cell phones into a flaming car. A warden played by Dwight Yoakam helplessly tries to explain George R.R. Martin’s procrastination with The Winds of Winter to his rioting prisoners. A Ken-doll-looking NASCAR driver (Sebastian Stan) casually refers to his food as “software” and his body as his “OS.”
But far stranger than the film’s Coen brothers-esque oddballs executing their scheme to a T is that, for all the risk involved, the viewer isn’t made to feel unsafe, uncomfortable or unhinged for a single frame. Even the robbery plot’s mishaps in Steven Soderbergh’s return to the big screen line up like planned leaps of the stomach on a meticulously calibrated roller coaster. It’s a mostly pleasurable sensation, and just like Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy, the heist plans flatter both the characters’ and the viewers’ intelligence.
Likewise, Good Time, the third feature from brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, is about regionally hyper-specific, white, working-class thieves. It draws the audience in tight for the run of a Queens street tough’s life, and it never relents. Seemingly without provocation, Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson) opens the film by removing his developmentally disabled brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), from treatment. Then, immediately, they botch a bank robbery: Nick is arrested while Connie flees, spending the rest of the film trying to extract Nick from police custody while sometimes veering toward alternative ways to score some cash.
Good Time is simultaneously taught and wild, and Connie moves about his world like a frantic rat solving a maze, the turns of which only he can see. In hurtling through a miniature odyssey of Queens, the film hinges on claustrophobia-inducing camera work, a lone movie star interacting with many civilian performers and a viscously pulsating Oneohtrix Point Never soundtrack that is probably the farthest possible extreme from employing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as a tender motif, as Logan Lucky does.
Though the Safdies and Soderbergh offer thrillers as aesthetically different as they are topically similar, the definition of what a “thriller” can be is equally open to interpretation. In turn, Logan Lucky and Good Time represent two disparate approaches to portraying criminals in film—one vocational, one existential.
In the last quarter-century, Soderbergh and Michael Mann have done more than any other filmmakers to cement the former. They’re fascinated by process, by the “organized” in “organized crime,” their biggest hits exploring how would-be villains find their identities in how well they do their jobs. There’s Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) from the Ocean’s trilogy, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in Heat, Vincent the hitman (Tom Cruise) in Collateral (repeatedly exclaiming, “I do this for a living!”) and Helena Ayala Catherine (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who acquiesces to heading up the family cocaine trade, in Traffic. They can be point men, bag men, munitions experts and getaway drivers, but the way they go about their work is often reminiscent of accountants, PR consultants or office managers.
Are the characters redeemable? That matters far less than whether they’re fastidious or sloppy, focused or distracted. And where Mann is unquestionably the more atmospheric director of this pair, Soderbergh is perhaps Hollywood’s finest tactician. In Logan Lucky, he studies the work life of these West Virginia bartenders and heavy machinery operators who also freelance as master thieves. They even cross items off a to-do list fashioned to Jimmy Logan’s (Tatum) dingy trailer wall.
Meanwhile, the films on the existential side of this crime-genre rift often pose a stiffer challenge to the viewer. The characters in Good Time aren’t so easily summed up by reminding us how criminals conform to corporate structures too. Connie isn’t a professional crook; his every fiber seems allergic to five-year, or even five-hour, plans. He feels a way, and he acts on it. Connie is on a bender of impulsivity that sees Good Time sharing more cinematic DNA with Leaving Las Vegas or Bad Lieutenant than Ocean’s 11. Even closer relatives would include Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre or Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, which center on outlaws crossing mortal and social thresholds with little to no orchestration.
In Fukunaga’s debut feature, a young gang member, Casper (Édgar Flores), murders his lieutenant and flees from Mexico’s southern reaches north toward the US border. The gang gives chase. We’re rooting for Casper’s literal and psychological escape, even if he’s simply damned by his past. Similarly, Gilroy’s 2014 thriller follows a Los Angeles stringer, Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal), chasing or staging increasingly violent crimes so he can film them and hawk the footage to news stations. Has Lou gone too far or is the audience only watching the beginning of his misdeeds?
Like Good Time, these films are interested in criminality as a point of no return. Thrillingly, we’re never sure whether that point was reached long ago, as a kind of original sin, or whether it’s still looming. These character studies don’t teach us how to watch them the way an Ocean’s film is almost instructive in the steps of a proper caper. (Especially when it doubles back to show us the secret bits of the recipe it left out.) Good Time and its kin rush ahead with hallucinatory verve—only, the further down the rabbit hole we plunge, the more real the risk begins to feel.