Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Sprinkled amidst the stunning amber panoramas of the American Southwest in Lucky, a few odd sights stand out. That of Harry Dean Stanton watering a cactus in his underwear doesn’t lose any comedic impact despite being prominently featured in promotional materials, but it’s the opening shot that really tips director John Carroll Lynch’s hand. A tortoise lumbers across the otherwise deserted landscape, taking his time ambling in front of the camera before we move on to Stanton’s titular character. Similar to the unhurried reptile, Lucky betrays no narrative urgency, prioritizing a space in which Stanton and his costars can stretch out in the center of the frame rather than along its edges.
We first meet Lucky (Stanton) as he goes through the paces of a well-worn morning routine. Mariachi music pipes out of his radio alarm. Several duplicates of the same shirt and pants hang in his closet. The coffee machine works, but the clock remains blinking and unset. After some exercises and stretches Lucky heads for breakfast at the local diner; he has “his” seat at the counter. During the heat of the afternoon he watches daytime television before heading to the town’s watering hole for a drink and to see his friend, Howard (David Lynch). This general sequence of events, repeated several times, makes up the backbone of the film. Yet little interruptions, deviations, and disturbances creep in with each repetition. Shying away from the traditional beginning-middle-end story structure, Lucky is mostly about how these small intrusions ripple outward in noticeable ways for a man ensconced in routine.
Every vignette deserves its own praise, each one layering over the other until, by the end, Lucky emerges as a beautifully nuanced portrait of Stanton. His recent passing reflects additional warmth back onto some of the tenderest scenes. Perusing an animal shelter, Lucky bypasses the puppies and birds in favor of a box of feeder crickets that he sets free, falling asleep to the sound of their chirping; stepping out of his comfort zone to attend a birthday fiesta for the son of a friendly corner store clerk, he spontaneously leads the mariachi band in a song. To describe more than a handful would spoil the enjoyment of watching each unfold for the first time.
Similar to this year’s earlier release The Hero, which moved Sam Elliott into a much-appreciated leading role, Lucky compiles the history and philosophy of Harry Dean Stanton into a quiet meditation on life that is alternately touching and amusing. (Worthy of note— in one scene, Lucky recounts his service on a tank landing ship during World War II. Stanton did indeed enlist with the Navy and was onboard an LST during the Battle of Okinawa.) And, like Elliott’s film before it, Lucky makes one regret that more filmmakers did not provide Stanton the blank canvas he fills to such great effect here. As Lucky’s best friend, David Lynch provides an additional dose of heart, particularly during a speech that will touch all pet owners. The supporting cast, which includes Ron Livingston, Tom Skerritt, Bertila Damas, Barry Shabaka Henley, and Ed Begley, Jr., is universally accomplished as they drift in and out of Lucky’s orbit.
There are moments of frustration sprinkled throughout Lucky. A more cynical director and star might have used them as stepping stones towards a nihilistic treatise on aging and death. Guided by Stanton’s experience and on-screen warmth, Lucky instead finds contentment in the uncertainty, good and bad, that touches us all at the end of life. And there are few farewells better than that.
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