SXSW Review: LUCKY Proves Harry Dean Stanton Can Never Die

The directorial debut of John Carroll Lynch is a graceful poem to perhaps the greatest character actor who ever lived.

Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) is ninety years old. He’s smoked three packs a day his whole life (though he only admits to one). While the sun’s up, he does the crossword puzzle at a diner, drinks his coffee with a lot of cream and a lot of sugar, and watches game shows from his ancient couch. At night, he goes to the local watering hole, drinks his Bloody Mary, and hangs with his friend, Howard (David Lynch), who just lost his one hundred year old tortoise named President Roosevelt because he accidentally left the gate open. Lucky doesn’t so much walk as much as he shuffles. After taking a spill in his home, his physician (Ed Begley Jr.) informs the codger that he’s in the best health a man his age can be in. He’s a freak of nature. He’ll probably live past one hundred. This baffles Lucky – a devout atheist and non-believer when it even comes to humans possessing a soul. What the hell did he do to earn the actual meaning behind his moniker?

The directorial debut of John Carroll Lynch (known ‘round these parts as “Not the Zodiac” from David Fincher’s Zodiac*), Lucky is a rather affecting treatise on the experiential teachings one takes after having spent many, many years on this planet. Only Lynch (working from a script by Stanton’s former assistant, Logan Sparks, and Drago Sumonja) is wise to not limit his film to the perspective of this sore-throated iron man. All of his characters – from the patrons and tender at Lucky’s favorite dive (which include James Darren and Beth Grant) to the host behind the diner counter (Barry Shabakla Henry) are given moments to bestow their own tidbits of worldly wisdom upon the audience. While some of these philosophical musings can be a bit much after a while, Lynch’s cast of seasoned character actors deliver these lessons with a plainspoken loveliness. This is a film obviously directed by a man who knows his way around performers, and he allows each to inhabit their respective planets in Lucky’s universe and layer unique, craggy personas onto their weathered surfaces. Lynch’s camera set-ups are simple, but what’s happening inside the frame is understatedly complex when it comes to developing these quirky small town desert denizens.

But let’s face it, Lucky is a gentle poem composed by John Carroll Lynch to one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen. Harry Dean Stanton is channeling an entire career into this crotchety old fuck, infusing every gesture and intonation with the stoic grace that’s become his calling card for decades. When we look at Lucky, we see Travis Henderson from Paris, Texas, and Brett from Alien (especially once the movie reunites Stanton with Tom Skerritt). We see Asa Hawks from Wise Blood, and Brain from Escape From New York. He’s Bud from Repo Man, but now retired and wondering if maybe he should’ve opened the trunk of that ’64 Malibu. As hard-hitting as Stanton is (and he’s certainly one of the coolest cats to ever live), he allows us to understand Lucky’s terror of becoming unwanted by anyone around him. All of those incredible roles and miles that we see via the lines on the actor’s iconic mug fade away as his (possibly) final character makes peace with the fact that being alone might be easy, but dying alone is the hardest thing for any human being to face. There’s melancholy peppered into his already towering presence, amalgamating into a wondrous performance that’s as meta-textual as it is lived-in. The sun is setting on this great thespian, but we needn’t forget what a gift he is while he’s still with us.

While all of the above may sound like a rather somber affair, Lucky is an incredibly breezy bit of entertainment that’s also wise enough to keep itself brief (at barely eighty minutes, not counting credits). Some of Lynch’s choices are incredibly on the nose (like cueing up Johnny Cash’s cover of Will Oldham’s “I See a Darkness”), and much of the pontificating causes the film to feel like it’s pedaling in place in order to make its point. Yet the moments of reflection and taking stock of a life when its reached a natural finish are made all the more supportable by scenes like the one where David Lynch delivers a monologue about how a turtle’s shell is also its coffin. Nothing is permanent, and everything eventually will end, even the existence of Harry Dean Stanton. However, while he’s still here, we should be rejoicing the fact that he’s still able to deliver a performance this specifically nuanced yet universally relatable. He’s one of the great ones; perhaps even the great one in terms of certain naturalistic affectations. And Lucky is here to act as a Greatest Hits record of sorts, bringing closure to a career that’s worth celebrating long after the final black frame comes. So smile, because that’s all we can do when facing the Void.

*OK…or Norm Gunderson from the Coens’ immortal masterpiece, Fargo.