What have I become / My sweetest friend / Everyone I know goes away / In the end
And you could have it all / My empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt
In general, I have a real problem with movies using songs with lyrics that tell you the entire story; when the first trailer for “Logan” premiered using Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt,” I rolled my eyes. I tend to think it’s lazy. In this case I was wrong.
That song — with its haunting regret and deep, unabated sadness — is the thematic mission statement of “Logan.” Yet “Hurt” is almost impossible to only listen to once, or to even feel sad after having heard it despite the lyrics. “Logan” is the same way. The release and redemption of that song’s confession are one-of-a-kind, and so is “Logan,” the last, most reflexive, most thematically nuanced and harrowing of Hugh Jackman’s performances as the X-Man known as “Wolverine.”
When you think about it, superheroes are characters stuck in a perpetual second act. There’s a reason why origin stories are the easiest to tell, sequels decline in quality as they increase in number and why conclusions are rarely seen (or good). This isn’t a problem in comics because they can publish infinite apocalypses, multi-verses and elseworlds where characters can be bent, broken and re-assembled without ever affecting the ongoing stories.
But movies have a different problem, in that they’re both larger cultural constructs in reach but also smaller, singular, two-hour chunks of story. A film is a film; it takes two to three years to produce and a whole lot of money. A franchise requires progression across distinct chunks of story. So even when we see the end of a superhero (“The Dark Knight Rises,” for example), the movie is forced to culminate the preceding films and find stakes that are high enough to warrant the end of the hero’s mission. To feel meaningful. On top of this, Jackman will likely never star in another movie as Wolverine. That’s a hard needle to thread. Where do you find a mission that means more than any before?
Logan is the best story about the waning days of Wolverine told in any medium, because it understands the greatest stakes for this character are also the most personal. Set in 2029 — in “who-cares-what-continuity” with the other movies — Logan is now a limousine driver in the Southwest, a washed up, hard-drinking loner with a failing healing factor that leaves him sick and tired. He sneaks his earnings across the border to secret hideout where an aging Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is dying of a degenerative neurological disorder. Given that Xavier is the most powerful telepath in the world, his sickness also means he has become a weapon of mass destruction. The rest of the X-Men are gone, dead in some unspecified cataclysm. Logan is just waiting out his last days.
Then desperate stranger Gabriele (Elizabeth Rodriguez) offers to pay Logan to escort her mute daughter, Laura (Dafne Keen), from Mexico to Canada. They’re on the run from some nasty characters called the Reavers led by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). At first Logan refuses but, of course, is forced back into action. Fear not. This isn’t quite as straightforward a “one last job” scenario as you’d think.
Writer / director James Mangold cut his teeth with Jackman on 2013’s “The Wolverine,” which I thought was OK. “Logan” gets it right. Mangold and Jackman really bring out the Western aesthetic that fits so wholly to Logan’s character, and use the “last gunslinger’s redemption” template without feeling shackled by it. This is still an X-Men movie, after all; a shadowy genetics company, a new mutant, the future of the species, etc. etc. Spliced together, “Logan” is smart pop riffing.
Mangold really focuses on tone; I’ve seen other reviewers call it “Cormac McCarthy’s take on Wolverine,” and that’s somewhat true. It has all the hallmarks of the great, dour scribe’s best writing: violent, bleak, deep and written with such skill that the language itself draws you in. Mangold and cinematographer John Mathieson create a future-Western vibe without distracting from the characters; they light Jackman in an almost noir-fashion, his old-age makeup (and actual hair this time) elevating the sorrow. It’s one of the prettiest superhero stories to hit the silver screen.
Most of the trailers have already let on that Laura is X-23, Logan’s progeny (of sorts), and so it’s not much of a spoiler to say the movie’s stakes aren’t just another love interest, or another world-ending threat, but rather Logan finally finding someone like him who might avoid the violent and lonesome life he led. Keen is a standout performance; she’s only 11 years old, but plays above her age, harnessing all the trauma and rage that defines Logan himself. Like the best “End of Wolverine” stories in the comics, “Logan” is ultimately about Logan facing the sum total of his life.
It’s just really fucking good.
I can use the word “fuck” in this review, right? “Logan” certainly has no qualms with the word anymore — or just about anything else. In fitting with the almost unrelenting sadness, it is also unrelentingly violent. Heads roll; claws actually land their blows now instead of bouncing off bodies like inflatable toys. It never feels gratuitous, or funny, but be forewarned: This really isn’t an X-Men movie to which you should take your kids. It’s more violent (less sexual) than last year’s “Deadpool,” if that provides any measure. It’s also less funny — or fun — than previous X-Men movies. There are definitely moments of humor, but by and large they’re used as relief from the rest of the movie and often answered with a deep dive back into struggle. This movie is relentlessly bleak (although, I admit, somewhat slow in the middle).
So I suggest asking yourself if you’re willing to give two hours to a violent action movie that is utterly reverent to the questions at the core of Wolverine’s character — a movie unafraid to impose the worst possible future through which he and his friends need to fight. I dug it, completely.
But be honest with yourself: How do you feel when you listen to “Hurt?” Because that is how you will feel walking out of “Logan.”