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‘Lucky’ (review)

Produced by Ira Steven Behr, Greg Gilreath,
Danielle Renfrew Behrens, Adam Hendricks,
Logan Sparks, Drago Sumonja
Richard Kahan, John H. Lang,

Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja
Directed by  John Carroll Lynch
Starring Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch,
Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt,
Beth Grant, James Darren, Yvonne Huff,
Barry Shabaka Henley, Hugo Armstrong

 

What was a sweetly quirky showcase for beloved character actor Harry Dean Stanton has now, with his death, become a beautifully moving cinematic farewell.

It’s a perfect tribute to the actor, with fond echoes of his best films. The small town desert setting recalls Wim Wender’s magnificent Paris, Texas, one of the few films in his 60-year career where Stanton played the lead.

Lucky, the title character, is an independent old coot who lives alone and whom we first see performing his daily routine of yoga stretches. When he suddenly collapses (another callback to his role of the nearly silent Travis in Paris, Texas), he reluctantly consults a doctor. Lucky is in good shape for his age, especially considering the smoking, but the simple fact is, he’s not going to be around much longer.

Stanton’s melancholy presence pulls this uncomplicated film up into something sublime, something strangely and profoundly moving. Underpinning each conversation, each scene, whether it’s explicitly stated or not, is that Lucky is dying.

Actors with whom he’s worked before — including Tom Skerritt and Ed Begley, Jr. — stop in for a scene or two. Even if the films that first brought them together aren’t referenced at all, we feel the weight of their history and the joy they have in sharing the screen again, if only for a few minutes.

The lines between the character and the actor blur. We learn the 90-something Lucky, like Stanton, served in the navy during World War II as a cook aboard a tank ship off of Okinawa, and there’s a photo of a young Stanton in uniform on Lucky’s shelf.

Throughout the film, the mundane becomes metaphoric, such as in a scene where Lucky’s friend Paulie (James Darren) seems transfigured by the lights and music from the bar next door to their favorite bar. He seems to disappear into the bar and Lucky follows, transfixed. He walks in through the out door, one side of his face bathed in red light, another awash in in the green light of the exit light. It’s a simple visual metaphor — Lucky is fast approaching life’s exit — and yet the obviousness of the metaphor doesn’t undermine the power of the image.

What starts out as an eccentric bit about David Lynch’s lost tortoise becomes surprisingly moving when he laments his loss. “He affected me,” he tells everyone in the bar who doesn’t understand his pain. Like that odd little storyline, the film sneaks up on you and you realize that hidden in the folds of its eccentricity is real feeling, real sorrow.

I saw the film about a month before Stanton’s death and was moved to tears. I typed this when I got home: “In a film about a man coming to terms with his own mortality, we’re well aware that the actor playing him probably hasn’t got much longer to live. Like Lucky, Stanton is spry, but fragile.”

The fact that Stanton died before the film’s release makes this tribute even more elegiac.

Some of the final shots show Lucky’s favorite spots, the abandoned buildings and the tumble-down garage he always walks past. We think, at first, that Lucky is gone, and that the film is mourning his presence, all the places he’ll never be seen again.

And then there’s Lucky after all, slowly making his way down the hill to his house. He stops to contemplate a weathered cactus and looks up to the top, where new blooms are about to burst forth. And then that craggy, dour face breaks into a smile. The camera glories in his smile for a moment, and then Lucky turns and walks away in what is arguably the most beautiful last scene of any actor’s career.

 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

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