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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024