Very few actors have been given sendoffs as lovely as Lucky, a slice-of-nonagenarian-bachelor-life starring Harry Dean Stanton. Even it weren’t arriving immediately after his death at the age of 91, this effortlessly moving portrait would be a milestone in Stanton’s career, his most substantial role since 1984’s Paris, Texas and one of the most affecting performances he ever gave. The directing debut of John Carroll Lynch (and the first film written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja), it feels like a gift from one outstanding character actor to another, but never one that indulges the thesp at the expense of the film.
Stanton is the title character, whose nickname dates back to his Navy days. (A charming photograph of the young Stanton, a real-life sailor during World War II, features prominently in several scenes — sometimes framed in contrast with his now-sagging body, clad in clingy white underwear.) Lucky lives in an unnamed Western town small enough that he can walk around it, and his routines are simple: low-energy calisthenics while smoking the day’s first cigarette; breakfast and crossword at the diner; buying groceries, one day’s worth at a time; and Bloody Marias with other old barflies at a place called Elaine’s.
Lucky moves slowly, but his mind is uncalcified. In the guise of working through crossword clues, he muses on the nature of concepts like “realism” — which, he announces, is a “thing.” Seeing what really exists and “being prepared to deal with it accordingly” is a theme here, as Lucky and those around him assess his impressive age and the likelihood (or not) of his death. “Those things are gonna kill you,” the diner owner says of the cigarettes Lucky habitually tries to light up at the counter; “If they could’ve, they would’ve” is his retort.
A fall in the kitchen prompts some concern from neighbors and serves as something of a narrative fulcrum, but really the film needs no excuse to observe Lucky’s interactions with those who, in lieu of wife or offspring, serve as his family. A well-picked handful of older actors, some of whom we haven’t seen in a while, serve as different kinds of foil for the not-as-ornery-as-he-looks protagonist, but the biggest surprise is David Lynch. Fresh off directing Stanton in the Twin Peaks revival, Lynch makes a rare acting turn (and a heartfelt one) as Howard, who has just lost his pet tortoise Roosevelt.
Of the film’s nods to Stanton’s real life, its incorporation of his musicality is easy to predict. But while getting Stanton to blow a little harmonica is a no-brainer, a musical moment near the end may well cause viewers to catch their breath. Bold but fragile, thoroughly haunting, the scene is pulled off exquisitely. Not long after this, the last of the movie’s barroom scenes would be just as moving with the removal of a second or two of on-the-nose reaction shots. But those excess frames aren’t nearly enough to keep Lucky from being something to treasure.
Production company: Divide / Conquer
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Beth Grant, James Darren, Hugo Armstrong, Barry Shabaka Henley, Yvonne Huff, Bertila Damas, Ana Mercedes, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt
Director: John Carroll Lynch
Screenwriters: Drago Sumonja, Logan Sparks
Producers: Ira Steven Behr, Danielle Renfrew, Greg Gilreath, Adam Hendricks, Richard Kahan, John H. Lang, Logan Sparks, Drago Sumonja
Executive producers: Bill Harnisch, Ruth Ann Harnisch, Jason Delane Lee
Director of photography: Tim Suhrstedt
Production designer: Almitra Corey
Costume designer: Lisa Norcia
Editor: Robert Gajic
Composer: Elvis Kuehn