The late Harry Dean Stanton was the ultimate character actor. He’s given us 60-plus years of acting credits across film and television from cameos to supporting roles, but rarely the full blown lead. His biggest role, in terms of screen time, was Wim Wenders‘ lyrical Paris, Texas about a man who seeks atonement for his sins against his wife and child by wandering the desert completely alone sickened to temporary muteness at what he allowed himself to become. John Carroll Lynch, a character actor in his own right (he’s still “not the Zodiac” and if he was he “wouldn’t tell you”), has made his directorial debut with Lucky and it features Stanton’s final leading role in the familiar lonely desert vista.
Lynch, like many actors, obviously revers Stanton for his rundown and defiant spirit that’s breathed a different air into films as diverse as Alien, Wise Blood, Repo Man, The Green Mile and The Avengers. But Lucky is more than a Valentine to an actor, it’s a delicate discussion of time and nothingness that would resonate even if Stanton didn’t just pass away in the same month of its theatrical release. Because of the subject matter, it of course resonates a little more with an afterglow of Stanton’s career being capped by a film that asks the question: what do we really leave behind? For Lucky (Stanton) the perceived answer to that is not much. He has no kin, no children, never married. What he has is a routine. He gets up, has a morning cigarette, does a few exercises, walks into town where he gets breakfasts and does his crossword puzzle, goes to buy a pack of cigarettes, stops to yell “c#nts!” into a golden orb, watches his game shows, smokes more cigarettes and then goes out to the one bar that’ll allow him to drink there.
Lucky is a complete character piece. And though it begins with some broad comedy setups for the cranky old man it never goes into the territory that most aging actors are relegated to these days: the comedy road trip or comedy duel. Logan Sparks‘ and Drago Sumonja‘s script reveals any back-story or insight about Lucky with organic strokes. We see him shake his head when a man kisses another man on the cheek at a diner but later when he’s at home watching Liberace play on the piano, he’s in awe of his ability to play “with so many rings on his fingers” and he sighs to a younger woman who’s dropped in to check on him, “I don’t know why I ever cared who he fucked.” These are just two small passages that show Lucky taking into account just how long he’s spent on this earth and seen humanity shift, although he might not have himself.
In another reflection at the diner, Lucky spots a Marine closer to his age at the counter (played by Tom Skerritt) and they swap war stories. But Lucky was lucky to never have actually seen battle, he was a cook in the Navy. We’re never told when and why Lucky got the nickname “Lucky” but Sparks’ and Sumonja’s script weave in many bits of dialogue that show that he’s lucky to have lived this long, whether he realizes it or not. He smokes a pack of cigarettes a day but his lungs show no sign of caving, he served in the Navy but got to be in the can instead of the shit, he fell in love but didn’t have his heart broken. He’s lived a life that’s unspectacular enough that Death might not know of his existence.
Lynch has flanked Stanton with a number of great career supporting actors. In addition to the aforementioned Skerritt (a Weyland Industries reunion!), David Lynch plays a lonely man who’s obsessed with his tortoise, Ed Begley Jr. is the town doctor, Ron Livingston is a lawyer who Lucky butts heads with at Beth Grant‘s saloon and Barry Shabaka Henley brings the coffee at the diner. You might not know all of these actors by name but you’ll recognize them. And it’s a nice stroke by John Carroll Lynch to dot his film with familiar faces who we don’t truly know well for that’s what Lucky is to the town. He’s familiar and has been a corner fixture for years but people don’t know about his life. And as Lucky begins to debate what reality is, whether each individual has their own experience and that’s all that reality is, he learns some personal truths from those around him and about himself.
Lucky is a film that’s content being small and internalized and that’s why it works very well. Even though it can feel slight, and toes the line of crotchety eccentric, it expands with immense questions in the second half of the film, signaled by a digital clock blackout that breaks Stanton’s daily routine. It, of course, helps that Stanton is magnificent. He uses silence and rascal exuberance so interchangeably that you know they’re rooted in the same place, in a place of hollow disbelief in life. Being alone in life might be easier than dying alone. Lucky lambasts many of the locals in town, greeting them by calling them “nothing”, telling them that souls don’t exist, that no smoking signs don’t apply to him but it’s the dual nature of darkness and light that they not only allow him to continue to be in their presence but also like to soak it up. Lucky wrestles with big questions without showing off. There’s a fitting awareness of humility and we’re just specks of dust approach to weighty ideas. As if the characters are consumed by their thoughts but mildly embarrassed by them.
What Lucky seems to be most concerned with is the perception of things and how, as he approaches closer to death, it might be perceived that he indeed was nothing because he doesn’t have the belt-notches of life that people mark as leaving something behind. If all you have is your reality and perception, death takes all of that, and is he able to live with that and accept it? For Stanton, he’s left behind so many great pieces of work that—even though some of these story asides are similar to his own story (never marrying, never having a child, and serving as a cook in WWII before becoming a Lieutenant)—he’d never need worry about being forgotten or having nothing to show for it. And like Lucky, he got lucky in age. It’s his lasting legacy that made the writers, director and probably a good chunk of the cast, band together for something small but special. He’s lucky to have a film like Lucky to lay his legacy to rest. In peace.
Lucky opens in limited release September 29.