Deep Focus: Lucky
Harry Dean Stanton complained loud and long about his status as a “character actor.” Even after his magnetic display of melancholy as the hero of Paris, Texas (1984), he never became a “character-actor star” like Gene Hackman or Robert Duvall. But no actor developed keener instincts for connecting with other players to create a solid grid of energy and feeling.
Stanton makes his presence felt profoundly in the chain-gang ensemble of Cool Hand Luke even when we merely hear him pluck his guitar or see him as a blurred face in a group at the barracks. Straight Time becomes one of the most veracious small-time crime films ever made when Stanton, during a jewelry heist, tries in vain to stop his obsessive partner (Dustin Hoffman) from seizing every valuable piece long after the alarm goes off; Stanton’s exasperation transforms the scene into a dynamic, funny-scary miniature of a job and a friendship going wrong. In Repo Man, as a deadpan working-stiff philosopher, with a personal code and a legal license to harass car owners and pilfer their vehicles, he turned Emilio Estevez into his punk straight man. Stanton could be devastating in one-scene roles. In The Rose, as an old-fashioned country star in a crowded trailer, his antennae quiver as he picks up on Bette Midler’s rock diva flirting with his teenage son and casually using curse words like “bat shit.” He bans her from recording any of his songs—a leveling psychological and artistic punishment.
Lucky, his final movie, stars Stanton in a role based on himself, as a proudly rational 90-year-old loner in a small SoCal desert town, facing his inevitable demise with understandable fear and existential questioning, but without a shred of sentimentality or cowardice. Lucky isn’t just an actor’s movie: it’s a character actor’s movie, with Stanton at the center of a roster that includes, notably, Ed Begley Jr., Ron Livingston, and Tom Skerritt. Each of their scenes is a triumphant test of how much meaning an actor can wring out of a single setpiece conversation. The whole movie pays tribute to Stanton’s ability to convey a rich, funky lyricism via the micro-feelings tugging at the gaunt features of his face, the economic movements of his bantamweight body, and the tangy, sardonic vibrations of his reedy voice. As an actor and a singer, Stanton shares Willie Nelson’s aura of filtering immense emotion through a spindly instrument, and he does it with a lithe bluntness all his own.
The first-time director, John Carroll Lynch, has long been a formidable character actor himself. He and Nick Offerman were white-bread sublime as the true pioneers and founders of McDonald’s in The Founder (2016). Lynch designs and shapes the film as a salute to his and Stanton’s own kind, demonstrating, albeit with several glitches and short circuits, how a live-wire cast can turn a film into a living tapestry.
The sturdy thread keeping everything in place is Lucky’s reaction to a seemingly inexplicable fall. It does no physical damage, but it makes him recognize that he’s not as independent as he thinks he is, after being a self-reliant maverick for his full four-score years and 10. And the concern that everybody in town shows for Lucky embarrasses and befuddles him. Lucky never questions his long-held belief that after life comes nothing but darkness, but he’s compelled to consider how that feels when a person actually stares into the abyss. The outcome manages to be surprisingly light, playful, and touching, without trivializing the subject.
Working from a script by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, Lynch intersperses group portraits of soulful humanity at a diner or a bar with intense tête-à-têtes. Lynch gives his actors lots of breathing room—a risk in a cast varied enough to include David Lynch (no relation) and ’50s and ’60s teen idol James Darren. Those two appear in the saloon scenes, along with Beth Grant as the bar owner (also Darren’s long-time lover) and Hugo Armstrong as the bartender. I was glad to see all four, but their styles and rhythms clash, and the film sometimes collapses into dead air. Even so, the bar scenes boast pungent moments, while the diner talk is consistently superb. Lucky becomes a magnetic focus as a man whose frankness draws out other people’s core truths. He’s like a walking divining rod for honesty and revelation.
John Carroll Lynch frames the movie with Lucky’s daily routines: his 21 reps of five yoga exercises, his morning cigarette and glass of milk, his talks to an unnamed friend or friends via a bright red phone (an existential hot line?), his crossword puzzles and game shows, his cup of joe at, yes, Joe’s Coffee Shop and Diner, and his nightly Bloody Marias at Elaine’s Tavern. (The great Barry Shabaka Henley plays Joe; Grant is Elaine.) The director sets up these survival rites so swiftly and indelibly that a tiny upset in any one of them generates suspense. Lucky gets woozy and faints when he stares at the flashing red default numbers (12:00) on the digital clock of his coffeemaker. This fall prompts a visit to Dr. Kneedler (Begley), who declares him remarkably healthy; his lungs are clear though he smokes a pack a day. He now has a chance to examine the whole aging process. The movie asks and answers the question, “Will he take it?”
The actor’s onscreen credit reads, “Harry Dean Stanton is Lucky,” so there’s no doubt who supplied the inspiration for this ornery but mostly civil and oddly engaging loner. Happily, John Carroll Lynch doesn’t push too hard on the idea that it takes a tumble to make Lucky realize how much the townsfolk mean to him, and he to them. The rituals Lucky shares with everyone in town are based in part on mutual humor and awareness. He and Joe greet each other with a jaunty, “You’re nothing.” David Lynch’s character, a natty fellow named Howard, is Lucky’s best friend, though a tortoise named President Roosevelt is Howard’s best friend. David Lynch is nonpareil at embodying an idée fixe. In the film’s quirkiest running—no, crawling—joke, President Roosevelt escapes from Howard’s yard when he leaves the gate open, and the poor man is afraid he’ll never see his reptile buddy again. When Howard’s attorney, Bobby Lawrence (Livingston), tries to craft an end-of-life package at the bar, so Howard can leave the tortoise well provided for (if it ever comes home), Lucky gets angry and accuses Bobby of exploiting his pal. When Bobby is presumptuous enough to start a sentence with, “You remind me of…,” as if the lawyer knows anything about him, Lucky challenges him to a fight.
Later, when Bobby ambles into Joe’s for coffee, he and Lucky—and Livingston and Stanton—gingerly suss each other out. Livingston brilliantly reveals that Bobby’s worry for his family in the case of his own possible sudden death has motivated his morbid legal specialty. The two find themselves tapping coffee cups without agreeing on how important it is to pay for cremation in advance. Livingston (still most famous for the lead in Office Space), an intelligent, truthful, and peculiarly witty actor makes us wonder, to the bittersweet end, whether Bobby just bonds with Lucky or also hopes to close another sale. Stanton’s laser-like gaze keeps him righteous.
A few minutes on, with Skerritt as a guy named Fred, Stanton pulls off the formidable acting challenge of an impromptu heart-to-heart. A Navy man himself, Lucky can see by the badge on Fred’s cap as well as the cut of his jib that he’s a U.S. Marines vet. It turns out that both served in the Pacific War. Each experienced terror—Lucky on an LST ship (nicknamed Long Slow Target) and Fred while battling to secure Japanese-held islands. Skerritt strikes an utterly authentic note of horrified wonder as he recalls beaches covered in body parts and native survivors literally scared to death—of Americans. He makes the sight of a Buddhist girl smiling as she contemplates the hereafter register as an epiphany for the audience as well as for Lucky. Skerritt and Stanton, two masters of understatement, work simply, quietly, and oh so powerfully. We feel privileged that this movie lets us listen in on their painful confidences.
Lynch’s directorial sense of balance isn’t always so sure. But he rebounds from every stumble with a satisfying leap, like holding on a shot of Lucky sleepless in bed while on the soundtrack Johnny Cash sings Will Oldham’s song, “I See a Darkness”: “Can you see that opposition comes rising up sometimes? / That its dreadful imposition, comes blacking in my mind?” The most memorable fleeting moments are musical; the film’s poignant refrain is Stanton’s harmonica rendition of “Red River Valley,” which he recently strummed and sang on Twin Peaks. When Lucky attends his grocery lady’s birthday party for her son, “Juan Wayne,” and he suddenly breaks into a traditional mariachi song, in strong voice and perfect Spanish, this agreeably prosy movie takes poetic flight.
Whenever the bar scenes threaten to turn into a sloshed homage to The Iceman Cometh, Stanton keeps the tone unvarnished, earthy, and amusing. By the end he’s like a laughing Methuselah. When he smiles straight at the camera he connects to us with startling directness. Mere days after his death, we can’t help but feel how sweet it is that Stanton ends his big-screen career with this jazzy benediction.
Lucky opens next Friday. “Also Starring Harry Dean Stanton,” a retrospective of his films, runs September 23–October 5 at the Quad Cinema.
Michael Sragow is a contributing editor to Film Comment and writes its Deep Focus column. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He also curates “The Moviegoer” at the Library of America website.