Lucky is a remarkable film, a living testament to the talent and formidable screen presence of the late Harry Dean Stanton. It was written as a vehicle for the nonagenarian actor by his longtime assistant, Logan Sparks, in collaboration with Drago Sumonja, and while it’s fictional, it incorporates many facets of the actor’s life and personality. The film opens with a shot of a tortoise crawling through the desert and disappearing behind a rock—an arresting image, especially in a widescreen frame. Then we hear a harmonica rendition of “Red River Valley,” and learn that it’s being played by the main character, Lucky. What a fitting and poetic way of opening this character portrait.
Lucky is an old man who lives by himself and follows a daily routine: walking into town, ordering coffee, buying cigarettes, talking to the regulars at the café, then arriving home in time to watch his favorite game shows on television. At night he repairs to the local bar and hangs out with his cronies. A sudden fall interrupts his routine and earns him a lecture from his doctor. This sends a fateful signal to Lucky that he has to face what he calls reality—what we might call mortality.
It’s difficult to capture the charm and unpredictability of Lucky with mere words. I can’t explain why some simple moments brought me to tears, nor would I want to give those moments away. I suspect it’s the honesty in Harry Dean Stanton’s face that makes those scenes so poignant and memorable… that, and the knowledge that the gaunt-faced actor was nearing the end of his life off-screen.
Sparks and Sumonja’s empathetic screenplay is brought to life with a sure hand by actor John Carroll Lynch, making his directorial debut. All his choices are adroit and appropriate. The cast is filled with talented people, mostly friends and admirers of Stanton like Beth Grant, Ed Begley, Jr., Tom Skerritt, Ron Livingston, Barry Shabaka Henley, James Darren, and, in an unexpectedly loquacious role, David Lynch. They add color and depth to a film that is seemingly simple but rich in subtext.
The main title, writ large, says “Harry Dean Stanton is Lucky.” That may be true, but I think we are the lucky ones to have such a beautiful film to remember the actor by.