With what has to be the oldest cast on television since The Golden Girls, it’s impossible to ignore what is the main obsession of Michael Mann’s pilot episode of Luck: age. Although this fixation is relatively absent from David Milch’s adequate script (that is until the moving final exchange of dialogue between Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Farina), Mann is most interested in weathered, wrinkly faces; grey and white hair; and gravelly voices, particularly that of Nick Nolte’s, which sounds as if it has smoked a million cigarettes and fought just as many shouting matches (he gives Tom Waits a run for his money). In stark contrast is the vitality of the racehorses, their gracefulness and their peak functionality. Speaking of which, Mann seems to be the first filmmaker to capture a horse’s beauty digitally—stunningly photographed both in motion as well as in the stable, where Mann tenderly admires their contours, the depth of their eyes, breath in cold air, and steam rising from one’s body after being washed. He articulates their beauty through their otherness and mystery, but when they fire like bullets at the start of a race, Mann finds the passion and drive that fascinated him with Ali, and more recently, with John Dillinger. As with those characters, it is with humble regard that he films these creatures. I doubt there is a camera with more respect for its subjects.
Surrounding these vigorous, stampeding beasts are the aging men who sit around staring at them. All the characters are linked by their dependence on the horses, whether it’s their job (John Ortiz, Richard Kind), in the hope of a jackpot (Jason Gedrick, Kevin Dunn), working the bigger picture from behind the scenes (Hoffman), or just to see them run (Nolte, though it’s also his job, one senses this is the one character who loves horses). These men all have something at stake, even if they have little to lose, they have everything to prove, if only to themselves. As the final moments of the episode affirm (which although they open up to the possibilities of the series, they also provide Mann’s own episode with a sense of thematic closure), perhaps these “old men” have something left—a different sort of vitality. The warm closeness expressed in the exchange between Farina and Hoffman that sneaks up on the viewer, anchored by the authentic feel of two lonely men in a hotel room (completely attributable to Mann’s compositions), hints at a sense of pride that Mann himself may share—the pride of knowing your age without knowing your limits (lets not forget Mann is nearing 70). As always with Mann, it is impossible to avoid linking Men + Work.
The pilot of Luck is doubtlessly the most aesthetically gorgeous episode of television ever made. Mann fully injects his sensibility, which so often teeters on the avant garde (if Mann had a hand in it I know not, but even the opening credits looks Brakhage-inspired), unconscious though it may be. His style can lead to beautifully strange moments. For example, when Jerry (Gedrick, who at 46 is actually one of the youngest leads, but still looks gnarled by time with his tired, bloodshot eyes, unkempt stubble, and I-don’t-care dress code) begins singing God Bless America after winning a big score. Framed in close-up, Mann refuses to relent with the volume of Dickon Hinchliffe’s score, creating an uncomfortable audio juxtaposition. Speaking of the score, Hinchliffe is a really nice match with Mann here, who also slips into some old needle drop territory (cue Eno) and some new (why hasn’t he used Sigur Ros before? makes more sense than Audioslave, no?). His singular expressiveness allows for small, seemingly underdeveloped moments to take on an unexpected emotional weight. Such as when an as of yet “non-character”, draped in shadow, wipes a tear. When a horse breaks its ankle, it’s genuinely tragic, like Mann’s Dillinger shot dead—sheer passion brought to a halt.
In Luck‘s first scene, Hoffman’s Bernstein is being let out of prison after a three-year stint. He is introduced to us cross-armed in medium shot, with out-of-focus prison bars in the foreground. Hoffman looks off screen in a close-up, cut to his POV of a clear door leading to the outside, which thanks to the uncorrected digital exposure, is glowing a blinding white. Continually challenging the possibilities of the digital image, and willing to make those images aware of themselves, Mann transcends the constraints of narrative continuity, in movies, and, I suppose, with television. But one has to ask themself when watching Luck: How could this be anything but cinema?