A Review of HBO’s Luck, Episode 3, Starring Dustin Hoffman

February 15th, 2012 | by Frank | 2 Comments »


A Review of HBO’s Kaleidoscopic Luck, Episode 3, Starring Dustin Hoffman

Director: Michael Mann
Writer/Producer: David Milch
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Richard Kind, Jill Hennessy and Jason Gedrick.

In Episode 3, the plot of HBO’s Luck weaves in and out focus like the mirrored lens of a kaleidoscope, as the characters pursue one set of goals on the surface, but underneath, have entirely different agendas.

Sort of like a trainer seemingly running a horse to win, but actually, trying to set up the horse up for a bigger payday in the future.

Welcome to the world of horseracing.

When watching HBO’s Luck, you definitely need to keep your plot decoder ring handy.

Although I have read many comments about Luck being “difficult,” and “slow” plot-wise, I do not agree. Nor do I agree that the dialog is inaudible.

The director of Luck, and the actors, are just letting you hear what they want you to hear.

Dustin Hoffman on Director Michael Mann:  

“He’s an actor’s dream … to get the authenticity that he wants, he asks you to go ‘under’, whereas a lot of directors might ask you to pull the wallpaper down… “He wants the performance to be more like life,” he says. “Actors use the word ‘pushing’ … [but] going under means not pushing to hit a note.”

For me, complaining that the plot is too slow is like calling The Sopranos too violent. You get what you pay for. This series has an inner rhythm that does not lend itself to easy viewing. It is like the symphonic music Bernstein is listening to when he is surprised by his parole officer for another pee test. Even there are no words, there is something complex and beautiful about the moments.

Black Beauty fans need not waste their time on Luck.

Mirror Opposite Characters Drive Episode 3 of Luck

Episode 3 puts several core Luck characters in full-on acting glory, often in mirror opposite position to one another. On the one hand, there is the newly released ex-con Ace Bernstein, energized by revenge and his reluctant reassertion into a world he doesn’t trust. On the other hand, you have trainer Walter Smith, played by Nick Nolte. Smith is gravely serious to the point that he seems pulverized by a pain he cannot express. He is obsessed with the pursuit of victory with a horse that carries the mysterious burden of his sire on his shoulders. It is not the horse that needs to win—it is the trainer.

Episode 3 of Luck is loaded with scenes about the inside world of racing. With the camera perched right inside the starting gate, you hear real horse snorts, see the jockeys swearing and “jockeying” for position as they hit the turn. You hear swirling sounds (words?) muttered under characters’ breath, and do not know exactly what they said. 

Fortunately, for those who like dialog, the sarcasm is at full volume in Luck.

As you watch these scenes, remember not to fall for the head fake.

At the same time, the show is almost like a racing documentary. You find out how to file the paperwork needed to enter a horse in a race. You see how some jockeys make weight, and almost die doing it, in the sweat box. You learn how a horse gets assigned a post position. You see a stable hand remove a horseshoe. You listen to a jockey’s agent (Richard Kind) continually working it to get his jockey better mounts.

You see a compromised vet (Jill Hennessey) judge a horse as “racing sound,” even though it shouldn’t be. You see the track doctor clear a jockey to keep racing even after he has just cracked his head open.

You see unscrupulous horse trainers living on thin margins, such as the one who sold the unsound horse to the pick six crew. Fittingly, this “trainer” is beyond sleazy, complete with a pit bull and a dirty mop outside his door to greet anyone who should choose to visit him. 

Most of all in Luck, you find out that the trainers are the people who hold the cards at the racetrack. They have more power than the owners. The bettors have virtually none.

Trainers seem to have more power than the horses themselves.

The Pick Six Crew of Luck (Kevin Dunn, Ian Hart, Ritchie Coster and Jason Gedrick)

In episode 3, there is a fascinating scene where the pick six gang  learn the rules of the road of being horse owners. In reality, they learn just how beholden they are to the trainer and the horse.

So much for the glory of horse ownership.

The horse they just bought (which was falsely certified as “racing sound”) is about to enter Escalante’s stable. Escalante (John Ortiz) rattles off all the expenses to his wide-eyed “owners.” They stare with utmost conviction and not a small amount of trepidation at what they are in for.

“It will cost $85 a day for training. $125 for a blacksmith. $3 a day for vitamins. $60 for carrots. $125 for acupuncture. $25 for the pony who works out the horse. $200 for the van to take the horse to any other track. Vet bills, Silks,” Escalante explains.

At the end of this scene, the pick six crew take turns petting the horse, like children at a petting zoo.  Escalante’s helper gives them carrots. The new owners are told to keep their hands open when they feed their new horse the carrots.

Knowing what viewers do about their horse’s injury, you get the distinct feeling that feeding the horse these carrots might be the only true reward they get, when it is all said and done.

So you want to own a racehorse?

And yes, it might still be worth it. Such is the beauty of horseracing.

Ortiz plays the character beautifully, simultaneously duplicitous and true to a code only he seems to understand. Like the other actors in this series, Ortiz has a great track record. He is a co-founder with Phillip Seymour Hoffman  of the LAByrinth Theater Company, which is based in New York City.

Director Alan Coulter (The Sopranos, Damages)

Luck probably has twice as many scenes as the average TV drama.  The dramatic payoff is in the layering of the scenes. The editing jumps in time from one scene to the next, back and forth, so that several scenes start and stop at once.

Allan Coulter (The Sopranos, Damages) directs this episode with complete control over the material.  There are many scenes where you think you understand what is happening, but it is only upon second viewing that you get the real meaning of the scene.

Behind the action, producer Michael Mann brings years of real world street drama experience to the table. Part of Mann’s skills were honed on Police Story, which was one of the first “reality” cops shows, along with NYPD Blue (David Milch). One of the originators of Police Story was Joseph Wambaugh [the cop-turned-novelist]. Want to get a taste of the earliest In Cold Blood-flavored cop movies? Check out The Onion Field, Waumbaugh’s ground-breaking police drama starring James Woods.

Ace Bernstein, Gus and Nathan Israel

In episode 3 of Luck, Hoffman’s scenes are amazing and complex.

Hoffman shows up for a board meeting and rapidly cuts to the chase. He orders a board vote to approve $50,000,000 for an investment. The board chairman is caught in a factual error by young financier Nathan Israel, who is an expert in “Munich derivatives.”

As a “passive” investor, Hoffman has the whole boardroom kowtowing to him, except for the young Israel, who dares to question him on the wisdom of executing such a transaction so quickly.

Bernstein seems to leave in anger. In vintage Hoffman twitch mode, he half-smiles, half-walks, while the board chairman clambers to regain his footing, chasing from behind.


“He’s here based on what?” Bernstein says.

“Do you want me to get rid of him?”

“Don’t answer a question with a question.”

“He’s exceptional with Munich derivatives.”

“Send him up to my place.”

“What time do you want him?”

No answer.

The question I have is, how do you write that!!!! Amazing dialogue.

Later on, during the “interview” at his place, Gus and Bernstein do their best to rattle the young Israel.

“Why did I get locked up?” Bernstein says.

“What were the charges, or why do I think they went after you?” Israel says.

“Can’t be straightforward? [looks at Gus] More important to him to see he’s in college.”

Farina gives a priceless expression.

“4 kilograms of cocaine,” Israel says.

“Do you think this comes from a job at McDonalds?” Bernstein says, exploding a little.

Once again, the subtext is what is driving the action—the point of the scene is to show how Bernstein can tolerate—and even appreciate—a person who is not a “yes” man. It is only later on, when Ace is confiding with his “chauffeur/advisor” Gus, that he confides that it is these qualities that he has in mind to drive his yet-to-appear-on-screen-enemy Mike, “crazy.”

Michael Mann on directing Hoffman in the prison movie Straight Time:

“There’s people who live life authentically and there’s people who live a life of fabrication. And it begins with the question of how you’re gonna do your time. And these are observations I made about Folsom when I was there with Dustin Hoffman when he was directing Straight Time. He directed it for two or three days, then he fired himself because he realized he couldn’t direct and act at the same time…. It was my first time in Folsom which was the end of the line of the California Penal System, which meant it had a mature population of convicts. There weren’t guys who were freaking out because they were suddenly thrown into the joint, as if it was like San Quentin. When you kill somebody in San Quentin, then you got sent to Folsom. So the operative phrases were things like, you’d hear people say ‘this guy could do a nickel or dime standing on his ear. He could do 5 or 10 years easily.’ But that meant it was the violence and the rules were ordered. But then the gang structures inside the prison, which at that time would have been Hell’s Angels — there was no Aryan Brotherhood then — Mexican Mafia — and the Black Guerilla Family, were beyond rigid. And it felt to me, viscerally, like this is lethal. It’s kind of like high school. We had 13 stabbings and one killing during the 19 days in which we were shooting. So it was obviously a dangerous place.”

Nick Nolte Emerges in Episode 3

In Episode 3, Walter Smith (Nick Nolte’s character) starts to emerge.  On the surface, he is the crusty old horse trainer, looking for one last shot at glory.  This is way too simple for this series.

Nolte is looking to make up for something, but we don’t yet know what.  We see him going into the horse secretary’s office, crumpled racing program in hand,  to register his horse, and to select his jockey. Critical decisions, but wholly underplayed.

Later we see Smith at the office where they draw post positions out of a bag.


When the steward draws the ill-fated inside post, Smith rips into the journalist beside him, muttering, yes muttering something it is hard to hear, only something you can understand.

You fucking jinxed me, he is saying. You don’t need to hear it to get it.

Bernstein and Gus Epiloge

At the end of episode 3, Bernstein and Gus, in what is now a recurring scene between these two ala Boston Legal, the two pass back and forth the revelries of their  day’s accomplishments and tomorrow’s pursuits.

“The Hook is sunk,”  Bernstein says.

“We can do what we need to do to get these guys,” somebody says.

“$1,000,000,” Gus says. “I thought he was going to…”

“I’m going to call that woman,” Ace says.

“What a beautiful horse,” Gus says.

The two men are on different tracks in their conversation, and both are slowly dozing off, not making complete sense.

They make just enough sense. This is the world of Luck.

Read a review of Episode 2 of Luck

2 Responses to “A Review of HBO’s Luck, Episode 3, Starring Dustin Hoffman”

  1. Jeff says:

    A. I didn’t see the ‘unscrupulous’ vet clear an unsound horse to be sold to the Degenerates. On the contrary, she makes a point that she’s not an ‘unprofessional asshole’. If the horse was unsound, Escalante would not have been so angered by having the horse claimed. The horse hadn’t run a race between winning the $8,000.00 claiming race and being sold to the Degenerates, so there’s no reason to suspect any injury in the interim.

    B. It’s ‘Muni Derivatives’, not “Munich Derivatives”. ‘Muni Derivatives’ are a secondary market for the hedging of risk for Municipal Bonds.

    • Frank says:

      Hi, Thanks very much for your comments. Muni Derivitaives is correct. The only reason I am unsure about the soundness of the horse is that there were some close ups of the horse’s leg which seemed to show a possible problem. You might be right that the horse is sound….quite a bit of murkiness about the vet, but she may be ethical. Let’s see how it all plays out.

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