Film Review: Lucky

This spare character study of a wiry old loner facing his mortality pays occasionally surreal homage to the wiry gravitas of Harry Dean Stanton.
Specialty Releases

One of the last great character actors, who never had top billing but hobbed and nobbed with those who did, Harry Dean Stanton isn’t truly a desert wanderer. At last report, he was still living in Los Angeles, as actors should. But there is something in those wide, seeking eyes, hollow cheeks and storyteller’s presence that made him seem like some wasteland troubadour long before Wim Wenders had him amble out of the sandy flats at the start of Paris, Texas. It’s fitting, then, that he spends most of John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut, Lucky, walking the streets of a small desert town and communicating as little as is absolutely necessary. Sure, Stanton might be from Kentucky originally, but he wears a cowboy’s hat, jeans and boots as though he were born in them.

Stanton’s Lucky appears like a self-contained entity. The deeply worn grooves of his daily routine are presented with all the precision given to the planning of a bank heist. It’s an unremarkable schedule, revolving around asking for help with the crossword at the diner or over the phone, watching game shows, and walking a set pattern of sidewalks around the neighborhood. His inexplicable good health as a 91-year-old chain smoker who appears to consume nothing but milk, Bloody Marys and gallons of coffee, is treated with shrugging disinterest. (Though Lynch includes a sight gag in which Lucky puts his cigarette down for his morning yoga and then retrieves it from the ashtray afterward.)

The rambling and taciturn Lucky is greeted fondly by the folks at the diner and market and is a welcome addition to the gang—a motley band that includes David Lynch and Vegas smooth crooner James Darren—holding up the bar at his nighttime watering hole. It’s not the most thrilling life. A big moment is when Lynch’s Howard, a squeaky-voiced guy in a white suit who seems only about five degrees removed from Lynch himself, announces that his 100-year-old tortoise President Roosevelt is missing.

The attractions of routine are tested after Lucky has a fall and doesn’t get a satisfactory answer from his doctor. The shivers of mortality creep up on this self-contained man. He suddenly looks around and is frightened at all that he doesn’t see. The episodic story doesn’t start throwing epiphanies at Lucky, who wouldn’t know what to do with them even if it did. Johnny Cash rumbles out of the soundtrack and a rattled Lucky whispers, “I’m scared.” But even as Lucky’s stoic veneer begins to break in existential dread, a scattering of small moments starts reintroducing him to the joy of a wide world that he had been mostly ignoring for years.

If Lucky had starred almost any other actor, it would feel too sentimental by half. But Lynch’s heartfelt and assured debut is more than an exceptionally acted, if ultimately minimalistic, one-man show. Openly showing their hand as giving tribute to the resilient veteran Stanton, writers Logan Sparks (the actor’s personal assistant on Big Love) and Drago Sumonjaseed autobiographical details into Lucky’s portrait. These range from his Navy veteran past to an ability to knock out an impromptu song in Spanish with a mariachi band.

The whorls of self-referentiality come close to making Lucky feel like a semi-fictional outcrop of Sophie Huber’s 2013 documentary portrait Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, which was similarly enchanted by the actor’s dry Zen charm. But then John Carroll Lynch whips off a David Lynchian feint at surreality, or Stanton charms with an especially dry line reading. These lilting moments are like a nod to the audience, thanking them for playing along.

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