On face value, Lucky is a parabolic indie drama about isolation and inclusion, age and mortality. But one should never take a film on face value. This is, in fact, a final act, almost documentarian, ode to and showcase for its star: the late, great Harry Dean Stanton.
The actor, who passed away before even the film’s US release last year, plays Lucky, a loveably cantankerous ninety-year-old, alive and kicking in Piru, California. Opening and closing with gorgeous, metaphorical vistas of a semi-arid landscape – not to mention a rogue and latterly relevant tortoise called Roosevelt – the film is quiet, ponderous and as melancholic as it is humorous.
Lucky is surrounded by self-reflective oddities, characters who may always be found in the same locations, telling the same stories. Each has a story to tell and it seems that each will continue to tell said stories until their very final breath. Lucky, meanwhile, exists both on the perimeter of their community and within its beating heart. His refusal to accept life’s rules, those prescribed to all he encounters, is painfully relatable.
Whilst an opening title is proud to declare that ‘Harry Dean Stanton is Lucky’, the reverse is unmistakably true; indeed, the role was written for him. Stanton and Lucky share overlapping histories – neither married, both ex-navy, both Kentucky born, both ninety – and the film unites character and man through a production littered with relics of the latter’s career. Stanton’s frequenting collaborator David Lynch lends himself to a supporting role of tremendous heart, as Lucky’s tortoise-owning friend Howard; Tom Skerritt is reunited with the actor for the first time since Alien and co-writer Drago Sumonja directed him in 2009 dialogue-documentary Char-ac-tor. Even the music here takes hints from Stanton, with an instrumental rendition of ‘Red River Valley’ having been previously been strummed by his character in Twin Peaks.
Lucky is directed by debutant John Carroll Lynch – no relation to David, who was surely an intimidating presence in his first film – an actor known for his turns in Fargo and The Founder. It’s strong work for a newcomer, with Lynch unveiling a talent for allowing his material to breathe and eye for smart shots and motifs. There’s curious surrealism in his use of a red light as some metaphor for the encroaching concept of an afterlife, upon which Lucky stands at a precipice. Lynch captures a complex life that is slower than it once was but no less sharp.
Just like the film’s protagonist. Lucky takes each day by routine, beginning with a glass of milk – the only item in his fridge – and the Five Tibetan Rites of Rejuvenation – a yoga routine he performs wilfully out of order – leading to a tour of his local diner, minimart and bar. Throughout all this he is constantly found reaching for innumerable cigarettes, his healthy lungs being a medical miracle: ‘All I can figure,’ says his doctor, ‘is it’s a combination of genetic good luck and tough son of a bitch’. Stanton is superb in the role and, although not his final work, this makes for a fitting swan song. His Lucky is funny and desperately heartbreaking by equal measure.
The film closes with a recall to Truffaut’s definitive framing denouement. Rather than a cursory reference, this direct relation of Lucky to the Antoine Doinel films does only to further the film’s commanding emotional depth. It is remarkable that a film so understated can stir so enlivening a renewed sense of vigour for life itself.