When it played film festivals mere weeks ago, ‘Lucky’ was just an oddball curiosity. Now, John Carroll Lynch’s film about Harry Dean Stanton coming to terms with the prospect of death takes on added layers of resonance impossible to ignore.
‘Lucky’ is ultimately a cute and deliberately strange little movie. However, the fact that it serves up Stanton’s first leading role in a film since ‘Paris, Texas’ right at the end of the legendary character actor’s life likely makes it play better than it otherwise would. Anyone touched by Stanton’s passing deserves this movie right now.
‘Lucky’ is a very small and episodic film. It’s structured around the main character’s (that would be Lucky, played by Stanton) mundane routine over the course of a few days. The days tend to be similar. He rises, does some yoga, sips diner coffee, picks up cigarettes from a convenience store, watches the latest sporting game, and then heads to his favorite bar to pound a few over conversation with the regulars (David Lynch, Beth Grant and James Darren). One morning, that routine is disrupted by a sudden fall, which leads him to a doctor (Ed Begley, Jr., rarely funnier). The doc can’t find anything wrong, but it makes Lucky ponder how much time he’s got left to kick around this dusty planet. All of his interactions with strangers, including a thoughtful ex-Marine (Tom Skerritt) and an insurance salesman (Ron Livingston), also bring to mind the subject of his inevitable death.
This is obviously pretty bleak and heavy subject matter, but director John Carroll Lynch (himself a character actor with scene stealing roles in projects like ‘Fargo’, ‘Zodiac’ and ‘American Horror Story’) never lets that overwhelm the movie. It remains sweet and mildly whimsical, a celebration of life from someone worried about how long it will last. Lynch uses all the character actors as well as he’s been used himself and delivers many long, strange scenes of David Lynch describing a tortoise, which is a special gift for those who love that man. He shoots in a clean, gently beautiful style. The visuals are just exaggerated enough to give the movie a touch of the surreal, but as with any film or even scene involving the great Harry Dean Stanton, there’s never too much of that “artsy fartsy bullshit.” (I’m not sure if Stanton ever actually used that term, but it wouldn’t surprise me.)
‘Lucky’ is a wonderful vehicle for Harry Dean Stanton. While he does get one miraculous birthday party scene to cut loose, the film is mostly dedicated to weary silences and knowing glances from an actor responsible for more of those things than most. He dominates every frame and crystalizes the somber themes of the story by his mere presence. Stanton doesn’t disappear into a character we’ve never seen before. That’s not his way. It’s a variation on his usual noble hangdog type, given added resonance by all the considerations of death on-screen, as well as the real one that just happened off-screen. The actor is as terrific as he’s ever been, which is no surprise given that he’s excellent in everything. It’s just an oddly poetic moment in an oddly poetic life that it all ends here.
Granted, ‘Lucky’ likely wouldn’t get the same level of attention or adoration it has received had Stanton not tragically passed. This is a little wisp of a movie, despite the script’s stabs at the profound. John Carroll Lynch has created something that resonates primarily because these images and ideas are all held in place by the great Harry Dean Stanton. The film never would have worked without the beloved actor and the odd timing of its release serves both ‘Lucky’ and Stanton well. This was a perfect note for him to go out on, even if it would have been nice to hear a few more sweet and sour notes from that unique and irreplaceable cinematic presence.