Last month Harry Dean Stanton died at 91, after a lifetime of cigarettes, high living and supporting roles he managed to turn into leads while no one was looking. He played a mere two actual leads on film: first in director Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas,” and now, in his swan song, director John Carroll Lynch’s fond showcase, “Lucky.”
The man with the narrow, gently weather-beaten Modigliani face brought infinite, unspoken personality and soul to every acting assignment. He was interesting doing next to nothing, which is a handy skill for an actor. In “Escape from New York,” Stanton had a scene where his rat-like character, Harry “Brain” Hellman, relayed a bit of plot information. Unremarkable. Yet I remember the scene: At the end of a line, Stanton broke into an extended chuckle, evil yet endearing, in a completely unexpected way. Here was an actor who knew how to put a cap on a shot that otherwise would’ve gone hatless.
In “Lucky” the aura and details of Stanton’s real life informs the fictional life of its title character. Lucky’s a paradox: a sociable loner, a Kentucky native and a WWII Navy vet. He never married and never had kids. Living in an unnamed desert town, Lucky begins his days with a few yoga exercises and a brisk walk to town. Stanton’s gait in “Lucky” is that of a man who appears to be stepping over invisible obstacles, at a brisk clip.
At the local bar he trades philosophy and insults with a local dandy (David Lynch, the director, who worked him with several times); a smoothie who seems more Palm Springs than Middle of Nowhere (James Darren); and the owner, Elaine (Beth Grant), who keeps a sharp eye on Lucky lest he light up a cig inside the bar.
Lucky is starting to falter: After a brief loss of consciousness, he pays a visit to the local doctor (Ed Begley Jr.), who chalks up the incident to a simple case of: “You’re old, and getting older.” The best course of action, he advises, is for Lucky to “clearly examine” his place in life, the inevitable end, and to “accept it.”
Director John Carroll Lynch’s quietly assured directorial feature debut works from a simple, homey script by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, and “Lucky” feels like the work of Stanton’s friends, which it is. At a birthday party, Lucky breaks into a beautiful rendition of a Spanish-language ballad; at the local diner, he mutters friendly barbs to the owner (Barry Shabaka Henley) while avoiding the younger attorney in town (Ron Livingston), who urges Lucky to make out a will while there’s time.
It’s a sardonically comic shamble through one man’s December years, played by an actor who brought some of his own props to the occasion (a photo of Stanton in his WWII Navy garb figures prominently) and all of his own wily craft. The movie’s small, and a little too tidy, but its devotion to ritual and routine nonetheless gives the actors room to maneuver.
Lynch shot “Lucky” quickly, over a couple of weeks in and around L.A. and two days in the Arizona desert. Each vignette provides a new performer the chance to have a moment with Stanton: Among them, Tom Skerritt shows up as a WWII Marine vet, whose painful memories of that conflict echo within Lucky’s own experience. It’s a scene that cuts to the chase, and to the heart of “Lucky’s” concerns: When we come to the end, what will we remember? And how will the darkness fall?
Rated: not rated, some language. Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston. Director: John Carroll Lynch. Running time: 88 minutes. Theater: Flicks.