It feels like something of a privilege to watch Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky: one of his final screen roles before his death last year at the age of 91. Lucky was written specifically for Stanton: a semi-biographical tribute, ‘a love letter to the actor and the man’ from Stanton’s long-time friend Logan Sparks and co-writer Drago Sumonja. Lucky is Sparks and Sumonja’s first produced screenplay, as well as John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut, and all three deserve kudos for what they have created with, and for, Stanton.
Lucky is a portrait of a man revisiting his life as he comes to terms with nearing its inevitable end. It begins with the intimate details of a daily routine, those small and sometimes strange choices that make us who we are, and it moves through the regular routes and familiar pathways of everyday errands and encounters. Everyone in this small desert town is kind to Lucky, concerned for him, although he might not realise it or show his appreciation of their efforts. Lucky himself is a mystery, presented without official name or backstory, obfuscating attempts at penetration and then throwing out details as they occur, as they become significant to him.
The drama, such as there is, is small, internal, enclosed; characters recall anecdotes and ponder meaning. There is much philosophising, and Lucky is cheerfully nihilistic in its purview. We are nothing, and that’s not just OK, it’s a compliment. Regret is chewed over, and meaning is created in making up for decades old mistakes. Lucky is sweetly humorous, quirky, and unhurried without being slow. It meanders, because that’s what life does, and it throws up epiphanies in the mundane, because that’s also what life does.
Lucky, having just discovered the word, tells us that “realism is a thing,” but also reminds us: “What I see is not necessarily what you see” – something particularly relevant in a film that is deliberately packed with tiny significant details, from crossword clues to crickets. Is impermanence bleak or beautiful? Are we alone or all one? Lucky has an opinion for you. In terms of interpretation, there are moments within Lucky that could certainly be considered surreal, and there is more than a sprinkling of metaphor if you care to look for it.
The colour design here is fascinating, with splashes of red – and red items used specifically in relation to Lucky himself – set against a palette of browns and neutrals. One wonders who he is calling on his red phone in an otherwise brown house, and just what happened in that weirdly red-lit alley that he walked down. We also see him against a range of blues – blue shirts, blue sky, – when he sings at the fiesta, when he walks the desert, and these seem to suggest a softer and more vulnerable version of Lucky.
Harry Dean Stanton, as ever, gives an understated and emotionally raw performance as Lucky. The camera doesn’t shy away from the details of his aged face and body, nor – happily – does it seek to filter it through the lens of the grotesque, as is all too often the case with cinematic representations of older characters. If acceptance of a situation is one of the themes of Lucky, then the camera collaborates in showing us that ‘it is what it is’.
Sparks and Sumonja have also created a wealth of small yet memorable character roles for Yvonne Huff, Barry Shabaka Henley, Bertila Damas, Beth Grant, James Darren, Ed Begley Jr., Ron Livingston, Tom Skerrit, and David Lynch. Yes, David Lynch, who manages to be all at once affecting and ridiculous with his genuine grief over his missing best friend, a tortoise named President Roosevelt. It is a real treat to see such a medley of actors here, and gratifying to see some diversity in the casting.
Lucky is, perhaps more than anything else, contemplative, both in itself and in the way that it affects the viewer. It is moving without being overly-sentimental, and it is visually attractive without being glossy. It will, perhaps, leave you hearing the strains of ‘Red River Valley’, wondering just what kind of bravery it takes to smile at one’s fate, and unable to get that final shot of Harry Dean out of your mind.