A wise and wistful love letter from one remarkable character actor to another, John Carroll Lynch’s “Lucky” returns 90-year-old Harry Dean Stanton to the dusty desert environs he shuffled through in 1984’s “Paris, Texas,” and offers the rawboned legend one of the best roles he’s had since. Beginning as a broad comedy before blossoming into a wry meditation on death and all the things we leave behind (a transition that kicks into gear when one of Stanton’s old friends shows up and steals the show), Lynch’s directorial debut is a wisp of a movie, blowing across the screen like a tumbleweed, but it’s also the rare portrait of mortality that’s both fun and full of life.
Co-written by actors Drago Sumonja and Logan Sparks (who worked as Stanton’s assistant on “Big Love”), “Lucky” introduces us to its curmudgeonly title character with the kind of clarity that makes it feel as though we’ve known him for the better part of a century. In some ways, Lucky is true to his name — in others, less so. On the positive side, it seems like death wants nothing to do with him. On the negative, it doesn’t seem like anybody else does, either.
Waking up alone in the one-bedroom apartment where he’s presumably lived for the last few decades, Lucky starts every morning with an exercise routine that would cause men half his age to groan with complaints. After that, he lights into his first cigarette of the day; he’ll light his way through three packs by the time he turns in for the night. Between smokes, he ambles through his arid town (which looks like an AARP catalogue come to life) before stopping off for some crotchety banter with the staff at the local diner and returning home to watch his gameshows.
He doesn’t seem like a bad man, just a lonely old coot with a very dirty mouth and a low tolerance for bullshit. When a life insurance agent (Ron Livingston) tries to strike up a conversation with him, Lucky snaps back: “There’s only one thing worse than awkward silence — small talk.”
If this all feels like a set-up for some genteel geriatric shenanigans along the lines of “Last Vegas” or “Waking Ned Devine,” and the sudden fall that Lucky suffers seems to portend the obnoxious intrusion of an actual plot, Lynch offers up an early indication that this isn’t going to be that kind of movie. David Lynch, that is, who plays a distraught bar regular who won’t be happy until he’s reunited with his missing pet tortoise, President Roosevelt (“There are some things in this life that are bigger than all of us,” he bellows, “and a tortoise is one of them!”). It’s always a treat to see the silver-streaked transcendentalist in front of the camera, but he isn’t just here for shock value — his presence alone is enough to shift this story from one plane of existence to another, to reorient our focus away from Lucky’s ever-shrinking future and refocus it instead towards his ever-expanding present.
John Carroll Lynch, who’s worked with everyone from Martin Scorsese to Albert Brooks (but will likely always be remembered for looking at Mark Ruffalo and deadpanning: “I am not the Zodiac. And if I were, I certainly wouldn’t tell you”), doesn’t explicitly borrow from any of his directors, though it’s clear from his careful precision that he learned a little something from all of them. But there’s no denying that Stanton is the movie’s rosetta stone, the singular wellspring for all of its laconic energy. His haggardly defiant spirit is so total and complete that everything in the film comes to feel like an expression of his well-earned weariness — from the tortoise that inches across the screen in the opening shot (President Roosevelt!?) to the urgent strain of Johnny Cash singing “I See a Darkness,” it’s all subsumed into Stanton’s shadow.
Lynch steers Lucky towards enlightenment with a gentle touch, favoring subliminal moments of abstract personal growth over obvious lightbulb epiphanies — even by the end of this unhurried film, it’s hard to say exactly what our hangdog hero has learned. After all, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. A lot of these scenes could benefit from being a little more aggressively shaped and bent towards a shared purpose, even if Stanton always was always a little rough around the edges. But observing him as he hijacks a Mexican kid’s birthday party with an impromptu a cappella rendition of Vicente Fernández’s “Volver Volver,” or listens to a retired marine as he monologues about a woman he remembers from World War II, it’s clear that he’s silently thunderstruck by how the sheer width of our world forces people to experience it together.
It’s a wonderful performance, artfully rearranged from the remnants of a lifetime of wonderful performances. So much of Stanton’s legend can be seen in these long close-ups, in the way he kicks a can down the street like it wronged him, in the way that Lynch slowly ekes a smile out of the actor’s tired jowls. But it’s the echoes of “Paris, Texas” that reverberate the loudest, in part because “Lucky” is a lot like catching up with Travis Henderson a few decades down the road. “I’m not afraid of heights,” he said in Wim Wenders’ classic, “I’m afraid of fallin’.” Lucky has a hard time admitting it, but he’s afraid, too. Afraid that being alone might be a lot easier than dying alone — afraid that knowing nothing lasts might not be a good reason to act like nothing matters. But nothing can come of nothing, and it’s a small pleasure to watch him recognize what something might look like.
“I always thought that the one thing we could agree on is what what we were looking at,” Lucky mutters to someone, “but that’s bullshit because what I see isn’t what you see.” Acting is all about reconciling those two fields of vision, of forcing them to overlap, and few people have ever done it better than Harry Dean Staton, even if took some of his characters nearly 100 years to understand the true definition of “realism.” If this is really his last role, we couldn’t ask for a more perfect view of him walking off into the sunset.
“Lucky” premiered in the Visions section of SXSW 2017. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.