Cloaked in personal tragedy and painfully unfortunate timing, Lucky is certain to be remembered for its coincidence with the passing of its lead actor, rather than for its own merit. A true shame, both because Harry Dean Stanton was an almost unfathomable talent, a dynamic chameleon who could seemingly put his distinguished stamp on any role he was offered, and also because the film itself is a lovely debut from director John Carroll Lynch and a poignant – if accidental – eulogy for its star. Always a moving character actor, Stanton’s final film gives him one last chance to play the lead.
Feeling like an end-of-life companion piece to last year’s Paterson (and even featuring Barry Shabaka Henley in an almost identical role), Lucky probes its titular character who is a slave to meticulous habits. Now in his 90s, every day bleeds into the same tired routine for Lucky. He works out crossword puzzles in his tighty whities, slurps down coffee at the local diner, stocks up on milk at the convenience store, and then stops off at his favorite dive bar, where the regulars wax poetic about the meaning of life.
Elderly movie characters are rarely given any depth, often resigned to a single, black-and-white trait. Here, the thoughts and expressions of older people are actually taken seriously. Although he doesn’t have much to say, when Lucky does open his mouth, it is a complex exploration of his own mortality. He realizes that he is circling the drain, and as a firm atheist, he is constantly fixated on what death will mean for his spiritual core.
Lynch has a great eye for detail, and he clearly worships actors. Much of the film focuses on zeroing in on Harry Dean Stanton’s lanky frame and battered features. Lucky is a character study that is just as concerned with the physical aspects of its characters as it is with their emotional evolution. In this way, the film captures the essence of Zen, placing importance on experience rather than incident, which, a rarity for an American movie.
Lucky flows at a fluid pace that makes it appear effortless, even though it was clearly constructed with such meticulous attention. Seemingly meaningless images gain momentum and clarity through repetition, such as that of a weathered tortoise wandering through the desert. The film takes a stab a documenting connected universality, not an easy task to accomplish. All of the pieces fit together just so, giving rise to the complete image that’s hidden between the lines.
Director John Carroll Lynch isn’t reinventing the cinematic wheel, but he has a precise vision for his directorial debut, and he hits nearly every benchmark he’s set for himself. Lucky is a quiet movie, which can make it a bit of a hard sell in certain circles, but it does what it aims to do with a steady hand. It is a commendable send-off for a fallen icon, and, as unintentional as it may have been, it serves as a greatest hits reel of the life and work of Harry Dean Stanton.