Harry Dean Stanton (who passed away on Sept. 15th) was everywhere, and he never changed. From In the Heat of the Night and Cool Hand Luke to Alien, Repo Man and his breakthrough arthouse hit Paris, Texas, Stanton’s long face and hangdog expression immediately caught your eye and kept your attention even while he basically played the same character each time – the down-at-heel working man who accepted his fate and made the best of a less than ideal situation.
You might be watching one of the worst movies ever made (I’m looking at you, 1968’s The Mini-Skirt Mob), and when Harry Dean showed up for five minutes you knew you hadn’t completely wasted your time. More often than not, though, he picked his projects wisely – which brings me to his swansong, Lucky, opening on Friday, Oct. 6th at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.
Lucky is a World War II veteran with a well-established daily routine: he wakes up, does his calisthenics, finishes the crossword puzzle at the local diner, watches some TV game shows, and heads to Elaine’s bar for a Bloody Mary. He walks everywhere, smokes a lot of cigarettes, and doesn’t like people very much.
It seems his routine will go on forever, until one day Lucky takes an unexplained tumble. Despite his doctor (Ed Begley, Jr.) assuring him there’s nothing really wrong with him other than an addiction to tobacco and the natural aging process, Lucky has experienced his first glints of mortality, and the balance of the film examines his coming to terms with reality.
First-time director John Carroll Lynch is an actor first and foremost, and Lucky reflects his background. Barring a single scene that nearly tips into Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me territory, his camera work is unfussy and uncluttered and never distracts from the film’s dialogue, penned with care and affection by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja.
Clearly drawing inspiration for Lucky from Stanton’s own life experiences, Sparks and Sumonja’s screenplay references the actor’s World War II service, his life as a bachelor, and – via a heartrending corrido in a birthday party scene capable of coaxing tears from a rock – his affection for traditional Mexican music.
Speaking of Twin Peaks, David Lynch appears as Howard, a nattily dressed neighbor whose hundred-year-old pet tortoise, President Roosevelt, has taken advantage of an open gate and set off on, presumably, a journey of self-discovery. The film also features onetime teen heartthrob James Darren’s first big screen appearance in sixteen years and a cameo appearance by Tom Skerritt as a fellow Pacific War vet.
Even if Stanton hadn’t chosen to leave us when he did, Lucky would still be firmly ensconced atop my list of 2017’s best. That said, his death seems rather apposite: in the film’s final scene, Lucky/Stanton briefly breaks the fourth wall and quietly smiles at the audience, as if silently preparing us for his leave-taking. Godspeed, Harry Dean, and thanks for everything.