Lucky is the most Harry Dean Stanton movie imaginable

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David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky.

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“You get older. In the end, you end up accepting everything in your life — suffering, horror, love, loss, hate — all of it. It’s all a movie anyway, the whole phantasmagoria — it’s all meaningless. There is no answer to any of it ultimately. It’s just what is. There is only the moment. Be still and see what happens. All of this unfolds perfectly. You’ve got to get beyond consciousness.”

These words were spoken by the actor Harry Dean Stanton — not in a movie, as it were, though they very well could’ve been spoken in Lucky, which marks both Stanton’s last film and actor John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut.

Few artists get to write their own eulogy. For every David Bowie punctuating his own death with the perfect final statement, there’s Lou Reed flaming out with an ill-advised Metallica collaboration. Even those who know they might be dying can’t necessarily plan for the last project to be a fitting career capper; that’s especially true with actors, especially those who work a lot in a variety of different projects.

Harry Dean Stanton was one of those guys. He made at least one movie a year since his first credited role in 1956, and racked up credits into his 90s. There’s no way to know if Stanton knew that Lucky would be his last hurrah; based on IMDb, it isn’t even officially his last since he has something called Frank & Ava coming out at some point in the future. But you can certainly argue that it makes for one hell of a capper, even if Stanton himself, ever the so-it-goes Buddhist, might argue that none of it matters.

A it’s-that-guy character actor with hangdog looks, Stanton started his career relatively late. He was already 30 by his first on-screen appearance and well into his 40s when he graduated from baddie-of-the-week roles on TV shows to supporting roles in motion pictures ranging from the classic to the execrable. While he played villains, authority figures, billionaires, hoboes, fathers, grandfathers, bank robbers and musicians, Stanton never really seemed to be acting at all. That certainly extends to Lucky, where Stanton plays a version of himself that would likely skew very close to the way he’d be had he never caught the acting bug.

A nonagenarian war vet living in a small desert town, Lucky has a very precise routine. He does his exercises, he drinks his milk (his fridge contains nothing else) and he walks over to the town diner where he does his crossword puzzle and exchanges zen koans with the diner owner (Barry Shabaka Henley). He heads back home and watches afternoon game shows, and in the evening he moseys on over to the local dive bar, where he holds a semblance of court over the other regulars.

It’s hard to differentiate Lucky from Stanton himself. Like Stanton, Lucky was a cook in the Navy. Like Stanton, Lucky smokes and drinks well into his 90s with apparently no adverse effect. His doctor (played by Ed Begley Jr.) basically chalks it up to some kind of perfect alignment of vices that will come crashing down if he ever stops smoking. Like Stanton, Lucky is a man of few words and even fewer concerns. Happiness and sadness don’t seem to grace his soul much in either case. Lucky, like Stanton, just is.

What little semblance of plot Lucky has concerns a morning in which he suffers some sort of episode and falls over. It’s nothing particularly concerning in itself, but when you’re 90, everything can be the beginning of the end. The episode sends Lucky into an existential drift, questioning his own mortality, and taking it out on the lawyer (Ron Livingston) that’s helping his best bud Howard (David Lynch) draft up a will.

Lucky’s loping, near-plotless narrative is a big part of its charm. As Wim Wenders does in Paris, Texas, Carroll Lynch focuses on how interesting and seemingly intemporal Stanton can be. (It might be the only movie in history not to play the image of its 90-year-old protagonist in tighty-whities and a cowboy hat strictly for laughs.) As I’ve mentioned before, Stanton barely seems to be acting, yet it’s fascinating to watch such an unaffected actor exist in a world essentially without affectations, though Lucky is not without its share of quirks. (If David Lynch as a man whose best friend is a 100-year-old turtle is not a quirk, what is?) It may be the closest we get to seeing an actor like Stanton actually reading the literal phonebook, and I for one could not be more into it.

Carroll Lynch is a solid it’s-that-guy character actor in his own right, and what shines through most in his directorial debut is this respect and fascination for the actors stuck in the margins and the subsequently marginal characters that they play. Every character in Lucky is a version of window-dressing, in a way — even its own protagonist would be relegated to the sidelines in a “traditional” Hollywood film. It’s a slight film by design, but it’s bursting with small moments and performance details that make it come alive. Stanton could not have hoped for a better send-off than this one — the most Harry Dean Stanton movie imaginable. ■

Lucky opens in theatres on Friday, Oct 27. Watch the trailer here:

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