“Harry Dean Stanton Is Lucky,” announces the trailer of the new film by John Carroll Lynch. That sentence means more than it sounds.
Yes, Stanton, the wonderful actor with that indelible hollow-cheeked, weather-beaten look who died this month at 91, plays a man called Lucky. Yes, the film is called “Lucky.” But what the phrase really means is that “Lucky Is Harry Dean Stanton,” in every possible way. The character was written for Stanton, and virtually every scene references his own life in some way. The director himself has called it a love letter to the actor.
In any case, we’re the lucky ones. While the movie as a purely cinematic experience is quirky at best and occasionally frustrating, Stanton shines throughout, and it’s a poignant and fitting sendoff for an actor who clearly still had much to give at age 89, when the film was made. In fact, maybe “Lucky” is really Stanton’s own love letter to his fans.
We begin, aptly, in the desert somewhere– surely a reference to “Paris, Texas,” the 1984 film that changed Stanton’s trajectory, finally making him a leading man. A tortoise crawls amid the cacti. Later in the film, we will hear that tortoises can live to be 100. And when we meet 90-year-old Lucky, it seems that he, too, will reach that milestone.
Lucky lives a low-maintenance life. He has few earthly ties – no spouse, no children “that I’m totally sure of,” no pets. He lives in a threadbare home with the few things he needs: a coffee maker, a fridge containing only milk, a closet with a few identical plaid shirts. And a cowboy hat, of course.
This is a man who clings to habit. Each morning he awakes to the same music, and does the same five yoga exercises in his white underwear. He makes the same coffee – lots of cream and sugar – and walks over to the same diner. “You’re nothing,” Lucky says to the owner, Joe. “You’re nothing,” Joe replies. This was apparently a favorite line of Stanton’s, an atheist who believed that we’re all, essentially, nothing.
Lucky’s day continues with his favorite TV game shows, a stop at the local grocery for milk, crossword puzzles, and later, after many cigarettes, a drink at the local bar, where he catches up with the same daily cast of characters. One of them, Howard, is played by director David Lynch in just one of a series of delicious cameos; Howard is deeply upset because his tortoise, President Roosevelt, has escaped. Much talk ensues about the nature of tortoises.
And the movie moseys along like this, vignette by vignette. What plot there is, centers around Lucky’s growing realization that he is, in fact, mortal. A scary fall leads him to his doctor – another nice cameo, by Ed Begley Jr. – who finds all in order, and doesn’t see much point in Lucky quitting smoking at his age.
We gradually learn some details of Lucky’s life story: He served in World War II, in the Navy (Stanton did, too.) He has a sad story about an animal. Most of all, he sings (Stanton did, too.) The scene where we witness this unexpected talent is hands down the most moving of the film.
And the most natural, too, so natural it feels like a documentary. This is a stark contrast with the scenes in the bar, where the dialogue suddenly sounds so mannered and showy, it feels like everyone is auditioning for a play. This unevenness can feel frustrating (the screenplay is by Logan Sparks, an old friend of Stanton’s, and Drago Sumonja).
Fortunately, Stanton’s presence is constant, and certainly overshadows any minor flaws. Even scenes where the actor is simply walking along the street, alone and silently, have a certain purposeful elegance to them. Apparently Stanton walked several miles in total during filming, in 100-degree heat. “He gave us everything he had,” the director has said.
And us, too. Again, we’re the ones who are lucky.