Ben Russell begins his hypnotic documentary Good Luck with a passage from the Belgian writer Henri Michaux’s 1956 book Miserable Miracle, which detailed the author’s experiences with the hallucinogenic drug mescaline. “Now I am in front of a rock,” Michaux writes. “It splits. No, it is no longer split. It is as before.” This goes on for several lines, the rock perpetually breaking apart and imperceptibly regenerating, until Michaux ends the passage with an ellipsis, implying the cycle will go on, unending, for all eternity.
The film’s next image is of a rainforest, over which is plastered a circle bisected by a thick black line. This basic sphere suggests the focal point you’d see through a camera viewfinder, or, alternatively, a primitive drawing of the Earth cleaved by the equator. An orb—or perhaps an infinite loop—divided in two. It is, in any regard, a perfect symbolic encapsulation of Russell’s film, which is also composed of two sections—the first shot in the underground RTB Bor mining complex in Bor, Serbia, the second filmed in an illegal above-ground gold mine in Brokopondo District, Suriname—and filled, despite its outward simplicity, with all manner of provocative rhymes and dissonances.
Russell’s aesthetic trademark here is the extended tracking shot, his camera gently floating behind and in front of his subjects as they go about the incessant, exhausting business of drilling and burrowing, digging and prospecting. The spellbinding mood is set early on as the filmmaker follows, in what looks like real time, a band of Serbian miners descending in an elevator from the sunlit surface to the murky depths of the copper reserve. Any sense of normal temporality vanishes. Every image feels like it could go on forever, though Russell’s decision to shoot on 16mm does give the proceedings a subconscious sense of a clock ticking. Compared to the prolonged possibilities of digital photography, celluloid offers a very strict recording window. Indeed, one of the most powerful moments in Good Luck results from the camera running out of film, the shadow-laden images of the underground mine suddenly vanishing in a shock of white light.
Is this a dream, a nightmare, or a bit of both? Russell has described his latest as “the human foundation of capital, revealed.” That’s not a logline that’ll pack in the crowds, though Good Luck’s political implications—most prominently that the almighty dollar is humanity’s enduring slave master—are expertly woven into the hallucinatory aural-visual fabric of the film. Hell can be on Earth’s surface as much as underneath it: The chiaroscuro, echo-heavy gloom of the Serbia-set section beautifully contrasts with the sun-dappled, insect-chirping atmosphere of the scenes in Suriname, though sickness and allure go hand in hand in each part. Noxious drill dust rises in hard-hat-lit dimness. Fetid pools of water amass in feverishly red soil. It’s appalling and captivating, and Russell never misses a chance to put his human subjects in stark relief against the environmental elements, emphasizing nature’s indifference, and pondering how analogous that is to the exploitations of mankind.
The film’s mostly male subjects seem dutifully resigned to their lives, passing time by talking politics (several of the Serbian miners discuss their trepidations about Prime Minister—and now President—Aleksandar Vucic) or performing music (the Suriname prospectors close out the film singing a song about the invariable enticements of money). Russell occasionally intercuts black-and-white scenes of individual miners staring into the camera—a conceit somewhere between reality-TV confessional (though none of the men ever speak) and meditative portraiture, akin to how Philip Gröning filmed the cloistered monks in his superb 2005 documentary Into Great Silence. This is, overall, a thought-provoking snapshot of humanity reduced to a pale shadow by economic discontent, as well as an eloquent unearthing—an excavation, really—of brotherhood in the unlikeliest of places.