UK Release Date: 14th September 2018
Runtime: 88 minutes
Director: John Carroll Lynch
Writer: Logan Sparks, Drago Sumonja
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Yvonne Huff, Beth Grant, James Darren, Tom Skerritt
Synopsis: An ageing Second World War veteran is forced to confront his own mortality when his doctor is unable to explain the circumstances that led to him collapsing in his home.
When a respected actor dies, it’s common for them to have a handful of unreleased movies in the pipeline, which arrive posthumously and serve as a farewell for their star. Few, however, are as poignant and heartfelt as Lucky, which features the final leading role played by acclaimed character actor Harry Dean Stanton before his death in September 2017. It’s a film that seems precisely calibrated to work as Stanton’s goodbye to the big screen, dealing with the inevitability of death and the notion of how to live out the final years of our existence in a way that is fulfilling, despite the inherent melancholia.
Stanton’s title character is a US Navy veteran who lives a fairly routine life in a small American village. He’s well-known to everyone, including the waitress in his local coffee shop (Yvonne Huff) and the husband and wife duo (James Darren and Beth Grant) who run the bar in which he spends many of his evenings with best friend Howard (David Lynch). A surprise fall in his home (“I just fell down, it was weird”) one day goes entirely unexplained by his doctor, who simply states that Lucky is growing old and must be prepared to deal with his body breaking down.
That’s about all there is in terms of narrative and so fans of intricate plotting will find little to quench their thirst in Lucky. The closest thing this film has to a running story thread is David Lynch’s missing tortoise – seriously. In lieu of a complex plot, actor John Carroll Lynch‘s directorial debut works as a showcase for Stanton. His character starts life as a prickly curmudgeon, content to spend much of his time alone and prone to spiky tantrums whenever he’s challenged. In one memorable scene, he dismisses Deal or No Deal as a “convoluted piece of shit”, despite the fact he seemingly devotes much of his day to watching similarly inane gameshows in his pants.
The movie does an impressive job of showing Stanton’s gradual change, particularly against the equally shifting world of the supporting characters. David Lynch’s character, allowing the acclaimed director a rare and impressive in front of camera role, is looking into wills and life insurance, while those who run the local bar are struggling with their own rather stagnant lives. The storytelling is aided by an evocative soundtrack that includes Johnny Cash’s contemplative ‘See a Darkness’ over one heart-breaking scene illuminating Stanton’s lonesome lifestyle. He tells one character that there’s “a difference between being lonely and being alone”, but the movie muddies the waters of that statement as it depicts him talking to an unseen person at the end of the phone – a person who may not even exist.
If that sounds depressing, it’s a good job that director Lynch peppers his movie with smatterings of wry humour. Stanton’s performance is as funny as it is tragic and this is a dichotomy that crystallises around a scene set at a fiesta to celebrate the 10th birthday of his Latina newsagent’s son. One moment, the focus is on the comic juxtaposition of Stanton’s presence among the Latina guests, while the next sees the camera hold on Stanton as he gets to his feet for a timid rendition of Mexican folk song ‘Volver, Volver’. Lucky is full of these quiet moments of simple pleasure, serving as a stark contrast to the bracingly real shots of Stanton as a visibly old, visibly vulnerable man in his home.
Lucky is a beautiful piece of work from Lynch that allows Stanton to shine in a way he perhaps hasn’t since Paris, Texas. It’s no coincidence that he gets an old school “Harry Dean Stanton is” credit before the title card shows up. His every movement, gesture and facial expression oozes gravitas and melancholy, only deepened further by the knowledge the audience has of Stanton’s death. The final shot itself sees the actor almost literally saying goodbye to his audience. In a movie so focused on awareness of mortality, it couldn’t possibly be more poignant than that.
Pop or Poop?
Sometimes movies are accidental memorials to their actors, but Lucky seems precision-tooled as a poignant reminder of Harry Dean Stanton’s magnetic power as a performer. It’s a subtle character study in which Stanton has the courage to lay himself physically and emotionally bare as a man struggling with the notion of legacy, as well as how he will fill his final days.
Colourful supporting players add texture, but it’s Stanton who’s the undisputed star and this is his showcase. Thankfully, for one last time, he’s able to rise to the occasion.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.