You don’t have to know who Harry Dean Stanton was to enjoy Lucky, a marvelous and joyous character study. But it might help. Stanton was a character actor in Hollywood for more than 60 years and was known for his hard-living lifestyle. He drank and smoked, and he looked like it. He became a star in indie circles for his soulful work in Paris, Texas and Repo Man, among others. He died in September, and Lucky is his final performance. Any actor would be so lucky—forgive the pun—to have such a film be their last.
Like Stanton at the time of filming, Lucky is a grizzled nonagenarian who has survived longer than anyone could have predicted, including himself. A veteran of World War II, he lives in a tiny desert town in Arizona. By day, he drinks coffee at the diner. By night, it’s Bloody Marys at the bar. It’s a kind of purgatory. His doctor (a bemused Ed Begley, Jr.) tells Lucky that, despite his years of abusing his body, he’s perfectly healthy. “If it could have killed you,” he says, “it would have by now.”
The void is waiting for Lucky, but not necessarily soon, and so all that hangs in the balance is Lucky’s soul. When one character gives him a pep talk about remaining open to love, the whole bar crowds around to see his reaction. Lucky finally blurts out, “Bullshit,” and they groan and disperse. Although Lucky’s age, lifestyle, and setting makes for a unique portrait, his journey is universal. He’s lost and frightened, not of death but of not knowing his place in the world. Just like the rest of us.
It’s a role that could not possibly be imagined with anyone but Stanton playing it. Few actors make it to 90, and even fewer survive six decades in show business, so Stanton’s illustrious filmography allows fans to fill in the gaps in the character’s life. We know Lucky served in World War II and that he never married, but that’s about it. A key moment in which Lucky fully lets down his defense and sings the truth in his heart feels entirely unexpected and yet in keeping with his courageous character. Richly textured and heartfelt, Stanton’s performance is a flower that unfolds carefully, revealing its vulnerable interior.
And the film does its actor justice. First-time director John Carroll Lynch (himself a veteran character actor) imbues each moment, no matter how banal it might seem on the surface, with an innate understanding of its purpose. A series of conversations with Lucky’s friend (David Lynch), who has just lost his pet tortoise, doubles as an inquiry into the meaning of friendship. Coffee with an estate lawyer is either a heartfelt reconciliation between two enemies, or a sales pitch by the lawyer disguised as one. Every second in Lucky contributes to its greater meaning, a remarkable achievement for a freshman filmmaker.
The lessons learned from Lucky and Stanton’s career, capped off by this moving performance, are the same: You don’t have to be an expert or a virtuoso to succeed. You just have to know what story you’re telling.
Lucky opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.