Luck Recap: If Wishes Were Horses …

Nick Nolte in Luck. Photo: HBO

Before we delve into HBO’s Luck, I need to get some housekeeping out of the way. I wrote about it in a very general way for New York magazine, then asked to recap the first season for Vulture. Luck is a rare TV drama that benefits from wonky auteurist scrutiny, and that’s how I’m going to approach it. I’m fascinated by series creator David Milch and have written extensively about his great western drama Deadwood for the Star-Ledger, The House Next Door, and Salon. I’m also an aficionado of the show’s executive producer and pilot director, Michael Mann. In 2009 I wrote, edited, and narrated a series of video essays about Mann’s film and TV work. As I recap each episode of Luck, I’ll delve into Mann and Milch’s creative histories and sensibilities. I might also break down scenes and sequences in detail and talk about why they succeed or fail. I’m not interested in the details of plot except as they relate to character and theme, and I tend to hop around in an episode’s chronology rather than writing about events in a linear way.

One other thing you should know: HBO sent the whole first season of Luck to critics in December, so bear in mind that when you read my (and others’) recaps, you’re reading observations by people who already know how everything turns out. Beyond urging readers who might be on the fence about Luck to stick around through episode four, where things really start to come together, I’ll try to avoid spoilers, and ask anybody out there who’s seen future episodes to do the same. I plan to delete anything resembling a spoiler from the comments threads and ban anybody who makes a habit of posting them. Them’s the rules.

And … we’re off!

Luck creator David Milch is known for his ornate dialogue, but his new series about gamblers and horse racers teams him with an unabashedly cinematic director, Mann (Heat, The Last of the Mohicans). I was excited but not hugely surprised when I found out that the two were going to work together, because they already seemed to have a lot in common. Both are in their sixties, grew up in Chicago, cut their dramatic teeth on early-seventies TV cop shows. And both are part of a wave of storytellers from the Windy City whose work features complexly plotted, often violent story lines, elaborately wrought and sometimes flagrantly theatrical dialogue, and a fascination with alpha male behavior that can be exciting or horrifying depending on the context. (David Mamet is another Chicagoan who often works in this vein; put these three guys in the same room and the walls might grow chest hair.) On top of that, there have been times when Mann seemed Milchlike and Milch seemed to be channeling Mann. Both Mann and Milch’s dialogue has a lively, syncopated rhythm that sometimes sounds as though it should be accompanied by bongos (though Milch is the superior wordsmith), and both have shown a knack for staging large-scale action scenes that involve a huge number of characters, and that often have an ominous or lyrical feeling, as if you’re entering into some sort of hive-mind and can be everywhere at once. When Deadwood built toward some momentous event, the sequence would often be scored with ominous, somewhat Mannlike synthesizer music that one regular poster on Television Without Pity called “The Deadwood music of doom.” And since anybody who isn’t as big a nerd as I am has already bailed on this recap, I might as well go ahead and share my favorite example of Mann-Milch convergence: Both Jeffrey Wigand’s slow drive to the courthouse in Michael Mann’s 1999 film The Insider and the aftermath of the shooting of Wild Bill Hickock in the fourth episode of Deadwood were scored with the same piece of music, Gustavo Santoalalla’s “Iguazu.”

Milch wrote the Luck pilot and Mann directed it. Their sensibilities mesh quite well, even though there are times when you can feel one sensibility asserting itself very strongly and muscling the other aside. (Artists, being mammals, are compelled to mark their territory.) The contrast between the glossy yet analytical photography and lighting (very Mann) and the elemental but warm characterizations (very Milch) works for this series. It’s very much about dreamers and schemers continuing to nourish hope in a world that has no awareness of, much less interest in, their personal needs and desires. There are times when Mann’s movies feel a bit too detached, even icy at times, and sometimes Milch’s series edge into a kind of boozy, “I love alllllllll you guysssshhhh… sentimentality” but with Mann counterbalancing Milch and vice versa, Luck feels measured and precise. You may not agree with all the creative choices the show makes, but you can feel reasonably sure that there’s a world view behind them. The contrasting sensibilities evoked in this pilot — warm-cold, intimate-epic, scientific-spiritual — feeds into the show’s fascination with luck, and its related, continous marveling at the impulsive decisions of individuals who try to tap into it. I don’t know if there’s a God working behind the scenes in the universe of Luck, but the way Mann photographs the track and its people, animals, bleachers, sheds, low-hanging clouds, and fluttering birds, makes it seem as though there are larger, unseen forces at play. Whether these forces can be explained via theology or physics is a question that the pilot never pretends to answer, and I doubt Milch or Mann mean to provide it; they seem content to watch characters deal with cosmic machinations that they spend their whole lives trying to understand and tap into. When one of these characters has a good day, or a big win, it’s like seeing a flower bloom in a junkyard.

The flip side is a killer, though. The accident that results in a horse being put down, its flaring nostrils and nervous eyes seeming to ebb as it dies, is disturbing and sad, and might scare away some viewers who were on the fence about the show. The subject matter itself is off-putting to animal rights activists; Luck drew fire from people who think horse racing is an industry based on animal cruelty, and I doubt it’ll be able to convince such viewers that it’s not. Either you think it’s an ancient tradition with a certain beauty and nobility or a business built on exploitation. The series can’t be compared to any comparably brutal sports drama involving humans. While the situations are fictional, the horses are real, and the races aren’t a game of “Let’s pretend.” The short-lived FX series Lights Out was about professional boxing, a sport that some consider barbaric and think should be banned, but the actors playing the boxers on that show weren’t really beating each other’s brains in; the horses on Luck, however, really are involved in races, and they don’t have a say in whether they participate in the narrative. I anticipate a lot of arguments about this issue as the first season airs.

The pilot’s opening scene is more Mann than Milch. Entrepreneur, gambler, and gangster Chester “Ace” Bernstein (star and co-producer Dustin Hoffman) has just been released from prison for reasons we’ll discover soon enough. There is no dialogue. The whole scene is about Ace’s expressions as he surveys the world that defined him for three years. The peak is a lingering shot from Ace’s perspective as he sees daylight streaming in from outside. Mann drops the sound out, creating a moment that seems suspended in time. He’s very good at this sort of thing — the kind of lyrical, subjective filmmmaking that’s characteristic of directors I call Sensualists. The early montage setting the scene at the track is another example; it lasts a full minute and contains not a word of audible dialogue. But when Ace gets into the limo driven by his his best friend and right-hand man, Gus Demetriou (Dennis Farina, star of Mann’s magnificent cops-and-robbers saga Crime Story), we’re back in Milch-land, where dialogue and reaction shots reign supreme. Ace and Chester’s banter has the casual profanity and blustering but affectionate machismo of another Chicago-bred intellectual wiseass, David Mamet, as well as some of the warmth that makes such films as Midnight Run and Diner endlessly quotable. (Ace: “All right, let me see your horse owner’s license.” Gus: “I’m surprised the camera guy didn’t ask me who I was kidding.”)

Ace is this show’s equivalent of Al Swearengen on Deadwood, a eloquent but hot-tempered alpha dog, but he’s a lot nicer right out of the gate; as written by Milch and played by Hoffman, he’s less a charismatic bad guy with the potential to do good than a hard man with a heart of gold. Nobody who buys a horse while in prison and asks about him immediately upon getting out is a totally irredeemable person. And it’s clear from Ace’s discussion with a former associate about taking over the track and bringing in legalized gambling that he’s not guilty of the crime he did time for; he was protecting somebody else.

Is this special pleading on behalf of a bad man? Probably, but I bought it thanks to Hoffman, with his Grandpa Ben Braddock shuffle, and the fact that this is a David Milch series. Nobody on Deadwood was beyond redemption, not even Al Swearengen, who lost some of his terrifying edge after his near-death experience at the start of season two and became a stealthy force for good in the community. Even Cy Tolliver, the glowering and vicious brothel owner played by Powers Boothe, and George Hearst, the arrogant millionaire played by Gerald McRaney in season three, were tragic figures — deeply damaged men who were clearly the products of their upbringing and experience. While the show didn’t excuse anything they did, it treated them with arm’s-length compassion. The most savage characters in Milch productions, such as Garrett Dillahunt’s sadistic killer Francis Wolcott, were just not wired right. Milch often seems to define the most vicious types of behavior as symptoms of spiritual decay or mental illness; it’s as if he’s saying that the inability to behave decently and connect with others on a human level might be a biological problem, a different kind of handicap. Mann’s work has a touch of this philosophy as well. His most memorable antagonists, such as Neil McCauley in Heat and Magua in The Last of the Mohicans, aren’t truly evil, just antisocial and damaged. There are moments when redemption seems possible for them, but because of their conditioning or their inability to control their violent urges, they reject it, and pay the ultimate price.

The supporting players on Luck are potentially just as complex and troubled. Nick Nolte’s trainer-owner Walter Smith might be the show’s warmest character, and Nolte plays him as a wreck of a man, a gifted professional trying to make it on his own after a lifetime spent in service to somebody else. Nolte is quite moving in this part, maybe because in recent years he’s finally lost his impossible beauty and started to look like what he is: a man in his seventies who’s done a lot of hard living. The scene where he watches the exercise girl Rosie (Kerry Condon) take his horse for a spin is some of the best acting he’s ever done, a master class in how to act in close-up; you can see his character making decisions in his head as he watches Rosie ride, realizing that there’s more to what’s happening on the track than an animal being put through its paces. But there’s also a deep animosity in Walter, a sense of grievance against the world that follows him around like the smeary ink-cloud that used to hang over Peanuts’ characters heads when they were depressed. Jill Hennessy’s veterinarian Jo and John Ortiz’s trainer Turo Escalante are secretly in a relationship — Milch’s script makes it clear from their very first scene together, with its teasing banter about the physiology of horses and Escalante’s impenetrable accent — but they treat each other somewhat warily, like driven professionals who are afraid of investing too much of themselves for fear of what they might lose if it doesn’t work out. (This is a Mann hallmark as well.)

The most likable characters are the four gamblers who win big at the Pick Six: wizardly oddsmaker Jerry (Jason Gedrick), dyspeptic leader Marcus (Kevin Dunn), and their associates Lonnie (Ian Hart) and Renzo (Richie Coster). They decide to build on their triumph by becoming, in essence, active participants in the life of the track rather than glorified spectators. They’re also the best dramatic illustration of one of Milch’s most cherished principles, which he explained to me in a 2006 interview: that collective agreement upon an illusion is the basis of all civilization. On this series, the shared illusion is that people can tease out, harness, and build upon luck. Is there truth to this belief? It depends on whether a character is having a good day or bad one. Fortune is constantly in flux.

Luck Recap: If Wishes Were Horses …