Somewhat surprisingly, it’s been a really great summer at the movies. It’s enough to give those of us who worry that the multiplex has ceded some of its cultural centrality to the HDTV in your living room hope that the movies might once again become the center of passionate debates and arguments.
Indeed, a bunch of the summer’s best films tell precisely the sorts of stories that work beautifully when constrained to 120 minutes or less, but might feel forced or clunky or stretched if they were expanded to occupy an entire season of television. Looking back at them now, it’s easy to identify the spots where they might have been needlessly blown out to fill a weekend’s worth of streaming.
I was spurred to this line of thinking by Logan Lucky, director Steven Soderbergh’s endlessly entertaining new heist film. The movie is tightly structured, beautifully paced, and endlessly inventive. It even survives what amounts to an abrupt transformation into a totally different movie in its last 25 minutes.
But it’s the ending of Logan Lucky that best illustrates how much more successful this particular story is as a movie than it would have been as a TV show — and how much more successful certain kinds of stories are as movies than they would be as TV shows.
To explain why, I’m going to have to spoil everything.
Logan Lucky, like its characters, smartly gets out while the getting is still good
As you’d expect in a heist film, the crew ripping off the Coca Cola 600 NASCAR race at a Charlotte, North Carolina, speedway succeeds in their task. They empty a giant vault of cash, carting it off in garbage bags and heading back to their West Virginia homes. But after the gig is done and Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) shows up just in time to catch his daughter’s performance at a local beauty pageant, you might realize something: There’s still a lot of movie left.
This is when, somewhat awkwardly, Logan Lucky shifts into investigation mode. Jimmy, seemingly having had a moment of conscience, returns the money by leaving it for authorities to find in the back of a stolen pickup. Hilary Swank joins the movie as an FBI agent who investigates the heist, trying to figure out how it happened — and how the only reliable lead on the perpetrators involves a couple of men who were supposedly in prison while everything went down. (I won’t spoil how Jimmy gets these men out of and back into prison without anybody noticing.)
Swank plays her agent as a hard-charging, driven woman — and her character is really the only person in the film who seems at all concerned with actually solving this crime. After all, the money’s been returned, right? But what she understands that others don’t is that the speedway doesn’t actually know how much money it lost in the vault heist, because its credit card system went down and in order to speed up transactions, it just started taking cash without keeping very close track.
Eagle-eyed viewers will surely have realized by this point that the film has perfectly accounted for one set of cash-filled garbage bags, which wind up in the back of that pickup, but has seemingly lost track of a second set of garbage bags, which turn out to have been thrown out and buried in a landfill. Once the FBI drops the case — and Jimmy knows the coast is clear — he goes and excavates them, and the team behind the heist enjoys a hard-earned celebratory toast at the bar.
They’re not expecting anyone to crash their party, certainly not an FBI agent who’s been waiting for all of them to gather in the same place, at the same time. But Swank’s agent refuses to let a closed case go. She thinks she’ll stay a while, she says, and the movie cuts to the credits on a gleeful cliffhanger.
Sure, if there’s ever a Logan Lucky 2, the film will presumably have to fill in the details of Swank’s pursuit of the Logan family and associates. But considering Logan Lucky is a film unto itself, and not the planned start of a franchise, this ending is a tremendous bit of fun. Read it however you want, especially in light of the film’s notes about class and how every piece of the US — public and private — exists to keep funneling money out of the hands of working-class people and into the hands of the ruling class.
Swank’s character represents the government coming to call, even when our heroes seem to have gotten away with it. It won’t let something like this go, even though the people who were robbed took an insurance payout.
Yet at the same time, robbery is still illegal, right? Shouldn’t it carry some degree of punishment? That such an elaborate, seemingly victimless robbery is the one the government won’t let go is supposed to leave you wondering, just a little bit, about whether Swank will capture her quarry, or if all involved will get away with it after all.
Turn Logan Lucky into a TV show, and it would all fall apart
In and of itself, a heist story could serve nicely as the sort of season-long yarn that drives many of the most successful shows on Netflix or HBO. You can imagine a new piece of the puzzle snapping into place over the first two-thirds of the season, then the heist unspooling over a couple of episodes, with the aftermath taking up the season finale. Just as in the film, the rural setting might prove enough of a draw to liven up the requisite heist movie plot points. The FBI showing up in town would be the cliffhanger. Come back for season two.
But we can look to Netflix’s recent crime drama Ozark to see how all of the space of a TV series robs a story like this of any momentum. Indeed, Ozark and Logan Lucky have a lot in common, from their rural settings to their love of the process behind committing a crime.
But Ozark spends a lot of time stretching out a story that very easily could have been collapsed into a two-hour movie. The idea is that all of this extra time allows for better character development, and the series certainly gives its (genuinely great) actors plenty of material to sink their teeth into. The problem is that it mostly results in the series playing out the same set of storytelling loops, over and over again. Ozark wants to be about how hard it is to break out of cycles of wrongdoing, but because it needs to stretch out that story to 10 hours, it becomes repetitive. By the time it reaches its own dark cliffhanger, it feels like a show with nothing left to say.
Logan Lucky, in contrast, largely disproves the idea that good character development requires lots of time. It sketches in characters quickly, economically, via a handful of gestures or costume choices or bits of dialogue. It understands that we best understand people via their relationships to others, then makes beautiful use of this fact, defining its characters as much by the people they talk to and spend time with as anything else.
A version of Logan Lucky that had 10 hours to play with wouldn’t just lose the inherent ambiguity of its cliffhanger ending (since we’d know, on some level, that season two would be about Swank hunting down the members of the heist team, as they all tried to stay one step ahead of her). It would also lose all of its beautiful economy, in favor of repetitive plot circles that would spiral tighter and tighter around the characters, until they started to succumb to the droning sameness.
It’s telling, then, that Soderbergh’s most prominent work in TV — the two-season medical drama The Knick — was deliberately structured so that its main character was a location. By centering on a New York hospital, the series could play host to a whole bunch of different kinds of stories, even if certain characters proved more important than others. Sure, that meant The Knick sometimes followed a “medical case of the week” format, but The Knick always knew that TV isn’t one big story, but many smaller ones.
Thus, Logan Lucky isn’t just worth seeing because it shows how much tired movie tropes can be spruced up via a change in setting. It’s also worth seeing for a lesson on how a story like this, even if it seems to end in a way that begs for continuation, is often best when it plays out in two hours and leaves you with something to ponder on the way home. Not every kind of story works on TV — nor should it have to.