“Harry Dean Stanton is…,” the opening credits of Lucky say in big letters right before the title, thus conferring upon one of our humblest players a level of movie-carrying star power usually reserved for a Schwarzenneger or a Stallone. When Harry Dean Stanton passed away last month at the age of 91, he had stayed active until the end. Very few movies gave him the leading role; the only ones I can think of off the top of my head are Repo Man and Paris, Texas, both from thirty years ago. But the outpouring of grief from cinephiles was rightly that of an icon, one who delivered more fine performances for more fine directors than we could keep track of, and I suspect this is also because those performances always felt more open than transformative. That is, unlike an Oscar titan like Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro, you got the sense (illusory or not) that if you were fortunate enough to meet him in person, he would probably be pretty close to what you knew from his best roles, with little pretense of celebrity. So Harry Dean Stanton is Lucky, and Lucky is an old soul in an older body, a chain-smoking retiree whose tranquil routine—maybe too tranquil, for some audience members—is broken when it starts to sink in that he can’t go on forever.
In a way, it’s amazing that this film—directed by the actor John Carroll Lynch (who has a pretty wide resumé of supporting roles himself)—gets away with as many contradictions as it does. It stays remarkably light and buoyant for a film that keeps pondering mortality, subjectivity, and “the void”, and then throws in a metaphorical Garden of Eden just for good measure. And it maintains grave seriousness even as its view of a small town in the American southwest is atilt with comic eccentricity. (Cinephiles will get the bonus of watching a well-cast David Lynch play a man uncommonly obsessed with his tortoise). Undoubtedly, this is because the film avoids the easiest climactic ways out—Lucky has, for instance, no estranged family member he needs to reconcile with—while allowing its little details and discrete vignettes to mean as much as its “big scenes.” I suspect the movie is perfectly satisfied to be small, and to see what it can find within that scale. There’s a scene at the end when Stanton, who by the then has been at both the giving and receiving end of fine monologs, suddenly makes eye contact with the camera and lets out a big silent grin—and for a second, you can’t tell if you’re looking at the character or the actor himself. Lucky is, by design, a film too miniature and too shaggy for entry into Valhalla. But that moment is one of the most subtly transcendent shots I’ve seen this year; it left me both heartbroken and exiting the theater on a high. As the movie keeps reminding us, everyone will die someday. But not every actor gets to take such a lovely final bow.
Lucky is still playing in a few theaters. See it with a small crowd of people who care.