“For guys like me, Las Vegas washes away your sins,” says Robert DeNiro’s character in Casino. “It’s a morality car wash. It does for us what Lourdes does for humpbacks and cripples. And, along with making us legit comes cash. Tons of it.” I think about Casino often while watching Luck, and not just because their main characters share a nickname, Ace. From Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue through Deadwood and John from Cincinnati, Luck creator David Milch’s scripts have been preoccupied with damaged or disgraced people seeking to redeem or reinvent themselves. Luck feels like his most personal take on this story, partly because of Milch’s own backstory (he was once a drug addict, and still loves to gamble), but also because it’s set at a racetrack, a place that externalizes the notion that luck, like life itself, is cyclical. The shots of horses running around and around that track are a documentary record of an athletic contest, but they have a metaphoric dimension, too. The turning of the earth; the changing of the seasons and the turnover of the calendar; the spinning of a roulette wheel or a poker dealer’s shuffle: these events all give hope to people who might otherwise give up and accept their current condition.
Just in case the Luck pilot didn’t make this clear, the second episode puts it in boldface. Nearly all of the major characters are trying to overcome trauma or disgrace or rectify errors in judgment that brought them low. Ace Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) just got out of prison after serving three years for possession of cocaine. The drugs actually belonged to his former business partner, Mike who stashed the drugs in Ace’s condo (Mike is played by Michael Gambon, who steps out of the narrative shadows in next Sunday’s episode). The bust would have destroyed the life of Ace’s grandson, who was in Ace’s condo when it was raided. Ace’s wants to take over the track and use it as a “Trojan horse” to introduce legalized, non-reservation gambling to California; this plan is partly motivated by Ace’s desire to strike back against Mike and other former associates who seem to have had something to do with his prison stint, including Nick DiRossi (Alan Rosenberg) and Isadore Cohen (Michael Mann regular Ted Levine).
Meanwhile, the four musketeers of the track – Marcus (Kevin Dunn), Lonnie (Ian Hart), Renzo (Richie Coster) and Jerry (Jason Gedrick) – are all looking to escape their present circumstance, which feels like something out of a Tom Waits song. (They live in a motel and eat in the same coffee shop all the time, and look as if they barely sleep or bathe.) Jerry is the wild card of the group; he seems to have a self-punishing or at least self-destructive streak, always counteracting his wizardly handicapping skills by blowing vast sums of money at the poker table. Veteran jockey Ronnie Jenkins (Gary L. Stevens) is struggling to overcome personal problems that were mostly implied this week but will become clear in upcoming episodes. Stuttering agent Joey Rathburn (Richard Kind) has personal obligations that he can’t meet and professional aspirations he can’t seem to satisfy; he buzzes around the track glad-handing and pitching and offering unsolicited advice. Exercise girl Rosie Shanahan (Kerry Conlon) has plenty to prove, and not just because she’s a woman in a male-dominated profession; she wants to make it as a jockey, and on the basis of her rapport with Gettn’up Morning, a thoroughbred owned and trained by Walter Smith (Nick Nolte), whose past pain is so immense that he seems to be pulling it along like a dray horse drawing a plow.
When we finally hear Walter’s sad story, it’s horrendous, and its tragic weight pushes Nolte toward one of the most nakedly wounded performances he’s ever given. When Walter relates the story of how his previous boss demonstrated “Kentucky Quality” by murdering Getting’ Up Morning’s father in an arson-for-insurance-money scam, his eyes well up and his already gravelly voice becomes choked with misery and rage. It’s shocking and moving to see Nolte, a paragon of Hemingway-style intellectualized machismo until about ten years ago, suddenly looking craggy and vulnerable and very, very old. But give the man credit: he’s a consummate actor, so he’s using it.
Is the plot of Luck too hard to follow? Is the dialogue too hard to understand? I’m not having as many problems as some viewers, but that might be because I’ve immersed myself in Milch’s magnificently backwards-ass 19th century locutions, to the point where they seem like just another mode of speech. The welter of accents probably doesn’t help; I’ve gotten emails from people who tell me they can’t understand a word that Rosie, “bug” jockey Leon (Tom Payne) or arrogant trainer Escalante (John Ortiz) are saying. (Maybe the DVD will have Milch-to-English subtitles.)
And people who’ve never spent a day at a racetrack might find Sunday’s business about claims and “the shake” mystifying. There’s an explanatory interview with Milch on the show’s web site if you’re interested, but the short version is: anybody can “claim” an ownerless horse if they get an owner’s license and put their name in the claim box before the race; if more than one party submits a claim on a particular horse, it’s decided after the race via a “shake.”
But I urge anybody who’s unhappy with Luck’s homework-to-drama ratio to stick with it, and maybe revisit certain scenes later. Milch and his filmmaking collaborators (Mann on the pilot, Hotel Rwanda director Terry George in episode two) stage action in a way that clarifies the gist of what’s happening even if you’re unclear on certain details. What you need to know here is that the interloper Chris Mulligan (W. Earl Brown of Deadwood) won the shake and thus the horse, and now the four musketeers are going to have to convince him to sell it or share ownership or otherwise wrest it from his hands. It’s in subplots like this that Milch’s storytelling inclinations and sense of life come together in a beautiful way. When his characters size each other up for strengths and weaknesses and try to figure out a way to meet in the middle without losing face, his scripts become verbal fencing matches that reveal character through the artful drawing of blood. As for the dialogue, Milch is well aware that people don’t really talk this way, and that as long as the rhythms and word choices are lively you won’t mind. He even kids his propensity for what Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums called “obsolete vernacular.” Lonnie to Marcus: “My mental adroitness is dulled by this constant negativity.” Marcus: “What?”