Lucky resonates like few films, conspicuously staged by writer and director as swansong and by the actor as his own denouement. Dan Stephens looks at why this low-key, meditative character piece is such a compelling gem.
Lucky could be dismissed as a film of episodic chapters punctuated by anecdote if it weren’t for the almost celebratory sensibilities of its love for character actors. At the centre of which is the brilliant Harry Dean Stanton. Written by his close friend of many years, Logan Sparks, the film is complemented by its semi-autobiographical nature that strikes a fine balance between raw, intimate character study and poignant but heartwarming nostalgia. It’s conspicuously staged by writer and director as swansong and by the actor as his own denouement.
Lucky therefore resonates like few others. But it isn’t as if the film, coming as it did in the wake of its lead actor’s death at 91, is consumed by melancholic obituary. Quite the opposite. Indeed, Stanton might well have saved one of his finest performances until the last. His performance is introduced by the film’s title headlining: “Harry Dean Stanton is Lucky”. That could mean the character’s unfathomable ability (at least by his physician) to remain largely ailment and illness free despite smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and surpassing his 90th birthday. Or it could be more existential, pertaining to Stanton’s own end-of-life assessment.
Either way, the film plays like a small-scale journey towards enlightenment, sparked by Lucky fainting and falling at home. A loner by design, he confides habitually with the staff at the local diner and convenience store, while drinking Bloody Mary’s with his buddies at the dusty SoCal town’s bar. Director John Carroll Lynch, a character actor himself, allows the conversation to flow effortlessly, the anecdotal back and forth a mixture of fable and perceived wisdom. It sidesteps being preachy by wonderful casting, Stanton ably supported by similarly talented character actors such as Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., and Barry Shabaka Henley.
Stanton also makes a call to a few friends. David Lynch, the director, who put the actor in a number of his films as well as TV’s Twin Peaks, and Tom Skerritt, his co-star in Ridley Scott’s Alien, turn in support performances that are typically noteworthy. Lynch is Lucky’s best friend Howard, a low-key eccentric why constantly laments the loss of his beloved tortoise (who “ran away”). Skerritt, looking sprightly in his advanced age, is a war veteran who happens across Lucky in the diner, prompting the pair to reminisce about the Pacific theatre of war during WWII.
John Carroll Lynch, no relation to David, might be directing his first film but he has a clear-sighted approach, built upon his own experience as an actor, to showcase how understated performance can be agreeably grandiose in its own subtle ways. In many respects, it’s what Stanton has built his career on. And it’s why Lucky is celebratory; of a career Stanton loved, of a profession he was so good at, and of a life lived.
It’s also very funny. The dialogue sparkles with deadpan pathos, wit and irony. When Howard reveals his pet tortoise escaped when he was out getting his mail, bar owner Elaine (Beth Grant) fires back: “Where is your mailbox? Europe!”. Howard’s undeterred, revealing he’s searched the entire neighbourhood to which drinker Paulie (James Darren) asks: “Did you search your entire yard?”
It’s this natural triviality between friends and acquaintances that balance moments of real poignancy. Lucky talking on his distinctive red phone to an anonymous friend as he recalls a childhood accident involving a BB gun that didn’t shoot straight and the accidental death of a bird (it was “the saddest moment in my whole life” he says) stands out, Lynch’s camera holding on Stanton’s contemplative face, his listless eyes staring off into space. This quiet, insular moment contrasts with Lucky’s outburst at a life insurance salesman (Livingstone), who he believes is immorally playing the hard sell on Howard (“You’re just here to suck him dry, you lamprey, leach, vulture; conning him out of his last dime”).
Yet, there’s joy to be found here too. There’s a sense of hopefulness in Lucky’s decision, while at a pet shop, to buy the live crickets used as feed for some of the animals instead of any of the pets for sale. Later, at a children’s party, after the candles have been blown out, he bursts into song, beginning “Volver, Volver” acapella before being joined by a mariachi band. And even in the film’s grandstand scene, when our 90-year-old hero, antagonised by being told he can’t smoke inside the bar, unleashes a gloomy definition of life to his expectant audience (the bar’s regulars), he leaves everyone clinking glasses in toast, and rejoicing what they have, not what they haven’t. Lucky surveys the bar, smiles, and lights up another cigarette.
The film’s aesthetic triumph is its delight in an actor’s ability to authentically convey character with a seamlessness that betrays its prefabricated nature. But you can’t help but watch Lucky with a sense of melancholy. It’s Stanton’s last major role in a feature film; a beautiful swansong that, with humour and sadness, considers from his own unique perspective, the multitude of intangibles that bring definition to humanity, personality and existence. Stanton was lucky, but through this denouement, he wants us to consider why we are too.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: John Carroll Lynch
Written by: Logan Sparks, Drago Sumonja
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt
Released: 2017 / Genre: Drama
Country: USA / IMDB
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Lucky was released in UK cinemas and On Demand, September 14.