The standalone X-Men story, LOGAN, dares much with its darkness, and achieves even more by being an emotionally brutal story that relies on character, not spectacle, to pack its considerable wallop. A tale that is as psychically violent as it is physically so, it is a sharp descant to the earlier films in the franchise as it presents a brooding, aging Logan (Hugh Jackman) very near the end of his existential rope.
Set in a dystopian near future, where civilization has not so much collapsed as it has been rendered moot by apathy and corporatization, all mutants have gone into hiding. It’s a time when the thugs who have set upon a drunken Logan in the first scene are not swayed when he rises from the dead, blades erupting from his knuckles. Logan drinks to forget, and drives a limo to keep Dr. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in the meds that prevent his seizures, the ones that paralyze everyone around him thanks to his enormous mutant mental powers. Tended by Caliban (Stephen Merchant), the albino with the heightened olfactory sense and painful reaction to sunlight, Xavier’s mental deterioration is only part of the reason the three bicker caustically. There is an incident in the past, catastrophic in scope, that has added crushing guilt to the many other complaints suffered by the 90-year-old. Hope is an elusive thing for all three, and the fact that there has been no mutant born in 25 years, leads Logan to conclude that that mutants, rather than being part of God’s plan for the future, were, instead, a mistake.
But then there appears an answer to all that in the form of Laura (Dafne Keen), a mute 11-year-old with a deadly attitude and mutant powers that are all too familiar to Logan. In a mordant bit of irony, Logan, the ultimate loner, finds himself in the role of nurturer to a child with no boundaries, but a primal need for family. A need so alien to her history that she has no frame of reference, leading to both the expected difficulties such a situation will engender, and surprising responses from her to Logan’s ham-handed attempts at parenting.
Of course, they find themselves on the run, chased by the relentlessly smarmy and literally iron-fisted agent (Boyd Holbrook) of a corporation that was messing with the natural order of things. Of course, it is during the uncertainty of their escape to a sanctuary, which may or may not exist, that they bond, but not in ways that are trite or contrived. The discomfort they find in the close quarters of a moving vehicle is palpable, the irritation of all three, an all too recognizable part of the human condition. Xavier drifting in and out of mental clarity; Logan, graying and coping with the diminution of his self-healing power and his failing eyesight; both on edge. Laura in her own world, neither rejecting Logan entirely nor giving an inch in her stubborn show of indifference to him while becoming more and more protective of Xavier. This is a solidly dysfunctional family with unbreakable ties to one another, struggling to cope, and grateful to come close to that. It’s a kind of dysfunction that comes in for unexpected comparisons to the struggling farm family that takes them in for a night, a family fighting its own battles with a corporation and with their differing ideas about their future.
This is a profoundly different Logan than the cocksure and swaggering superhero of previous installments, and Jackman imbues him with masterful layers of emotional complexity and an exhaustion with life that threatens to swallow him whole. There is melancholy and tenderness, as well as the shock of realizing that, as he stares into the abyss of nihilism, it no longer frightens him. It has become a temptation. Stewart follows suit with an Xavier who has come to question everything he took for granted, but, unlike Logan, persists is believing in a future of which Logan has become less sure.
LOGAN hearkens to classic themes of identity. It uses SHANE as its touchstone for its questioning of how someone who has lived violently can ever live in peace, and for visual impact, shows us Logan wrestling with that question figuratively and literally. It’s a showy piece of filmmaking, but also a thoughtful one that, like the film itself, ponders difficult questions without resorting to facile answers.