When an actor passes away, there is a tendency to place extra emphasis on their most recent work. This seems to be the case with Harry Dean Stanton’s final performance. Lucky is the story of a man approaching the end of his life. Free of any immediate life threatening conditions, he is left to have a full accounting of his life and tackle those existential questions.
With 63-years acting experience under his belt, this may not have been a career defining performance for Stanton but it will certainly go down as one of his most memorable. His ability and willingness to embody the titular character speaks volumes of his dedication and commitment. This role wasn’t light on the workload, requiring a level of physicality that demanded quite a lot of the nonagenarian. Even though this isn’t a film where much happens, Stanton still managed to be a compelling on screen presence. A true testament to his mastery. His brilliance is one that sidles up beside you and nestles, not profoundly dominant, and then you’re hooked before you even realize you care. Still, given the nature of the character, I imagine it difficult for the average person to connect with him and that’s reflected in his relationships in the film. Despite his best efforts, even those closest to him struggle to grasp the enormity swirling around inside him. This was a tremendous, authentic performance from Stanton…a metaphorical endeavor of sorts. While I would hesitate to say it’s the best acting performance of the year, it’s absolutely in the conversation and likely to get some votes at the end of the year.
He had the benefit of a stellar supporting cast with a mixture of bit parts and cameos. At the forefront of that group is David Lynch as Lucky’s best and seemingly only real friend, Howard. After losing his tortoise, President Roosevelt, Lucky experiences different stages of grief vicariously through his friend. Lynch is comic relief of sorts in this movie, but he delivers a very poignant and heartfelt monologue in which he talks about the eventuality and finality of death. Unwittingly, he serves as the catalyst which pushes Lucky to grander realizations about his own life and inevitable demise. Ron Livingston, who is probably still best known for his role in Office Space, has a sizeable role as Howard’s lawyer. At first the target of Lucky’s drunken vitriol, the pair eventually have a heart-to-heart and bond over their fear of death. Livingston’s unique delivery lends itself well to the comedic side of things, but he does possess an earnestness that he utilized well for this role.
Ed Begley Jr. had a great cameo as Lucky’s doctor. He and Stanton had great rapport which captured a light hearted intimacy between the two that allowed for some real conversation between doctor and patient. It was good to see Tom Skerritt again. He popped in with a small role as a fellow World War II veteran who shares a cup of coffee with Lucky as they reminisce. It’s not the kind of role that’s going to receive much attention, but it was important in establishing that piece of Lucky’s background. One of my favorite character actresses, Beth Grant, brought her unique southern charm to this project as Elaine, the owner of a local bar that plays host to some of Lucky’s semi-coherent ramblings. Her sharp wit and unmistakable tone were a great addition to the project and helped to draw a firm line in the sand between Lucky’s world and everyone else’s.
John Carroll Lynch (no relation) did a solid job in his directorial debut. It was a tall order to direct a film where nothing really happens but, as a seasoned character actor himself, he understood the intrinsic value in character narratives. There was no plot driven approach to making this film. Instead, he just let the script speak for itself and presented a world for it to unfold in. Lynch’s experience in front of the camera helped him get good quality performances from the cast and paint those characters in a more tangible light. Working off a debut screenplay, written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, it’s rich in character if nothing else and that seems to be the point. The dialogue is mostly strong although it seems to lose its way on occasion when the characters are speaking in metaphors and the metaphysical. Somehow the pair managed to capture the end of life conundrums that will eventually plague us all if we’re “Lucky”.
Our culture doesn’t place value with the elderly, there is very little reverence there. As a result, films like this one hardly ever get made, let alone showcased. At its core, it was an exercise in reflective filmmaking as it doesn’t serve to set a series of events in motion or establish a beginning, middle and end. Rather, it serves as a mirror which can help shine some light on our final years. As I walked out of the theater after the film, an older man asked me and my girlfriend if we thought the film was interesting. I replied, “it was interesting even though not much happened”. It’s tough to make a compelling story where there isn’t much in the way of plot mechanics, but that shouldn’t detract from the quality and style that went into this. Rest in peace Harry Dean Stanton.
Recommendation: This certainly isn’t for everyone, but for those who choose to make the commitment, there is some intrinsic value. It should resonate with an older crowd and those with elderly relatives but, if you allow it to, Stanton’s performance can reach deep and pluck at the heart strings.