Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) is a cantankerous 90 year old living alone in a small New Mexican town. He spends his days watching game shows, doing crosswords and visiting the local diner and bar, where he waxes existential with his friend Howard (David Lynch), the bar’s owner Elaine (Beth Grant) and her boyfriend Paulie (James Darren)…and that’s pretty much it. However, actor John Carroll Lynch’s debut directorial effort doesn’t feel as scattershot as the plotless nature of the story may suggest, anchored as it is by a phenomenal final performance by Harry Dean Stanton.
From opening shot to final credits, Lucky is Stanton’s show. So much so, that there are times the character he is playing blurs into the real life actor’s mannerisms. Director Lynch pulls the film way back to stay right out of the way of Stanton’s performance but also reinforcing it through the quietly beautiful cinematography and a couple of dream sequences which only enrich Lucky’s character and his world weariness. Lucky does not suffer fools gladly, nor does he judge or push his opinions on anyone. A World War II vet, he’s seen the worst humanity can do to each other and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Yet his outlook is atheistic and existential, that from darkness we come and to darkness we return, yet there is no maudlin fixation on the meaninglessness of life; one must find meaning, even in the smallest things.
It cannot be stated enough that Stanton is absolutely remarkable in this film. Every nuance and tick is imbued with the great cinematic history of one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors. Comparisons to his most iconic role in Paris, Texas immediately come to mind, only this is Travis 30 years on, still wandering the desert. He must have known this would be one of his final films; there is knowingness to his portrayal of Lucky, of a man awaiting the inevitable, and smiling while he does so. Anyone familiar with the man and his work will not be able to hold back the wave of emotion that his quietly powerful performance will engender.
While Stanton’s performance is the core of Lucky (he is in every scene), he has been surrounded by an equally talented group of character actors, plus his old buddy David Lynch. The famous director plays a very “Lynchian” character, a man beside himself at the loss of his tortoise. There is a scene where he recounts his relationship to his beloved pet which is beautifully played and almost steals the spotlight for a brief moment, but only opens the door for the deeply affecting final scenes.
Lucky may lack a traditional plot and it (purposefully) meanders from scene to scene, but it is all pulled together by Stanton. There is an elegiac quality to the film which makes for a deeply emotional response to the actor’s performance, but its tinge of hopefulness also makes it a celebration of Stanton’s life. What better way to end such an illustrious career than to smile in the face of death? Seems like a very Harry Dean Stanton thing to do.