Harry Dean Stanton’s Swan Song is a Quiet Triumph


Some people are lucky, some are not. One look at the dark and lonely dwelling, the singular life, the overall situation of this oddly pragmatic yet deeply felt atheist, and one could be forgiven for assuming this gaunt, eighty-nine year old man is among the unfortunate Americans. But he is in fact Lucky.

The recently departed Harry Dean Stanton (Paris, Texas; Alien) plays Lucky, an old codger of a man who’s always lived alone; no kids or immediate family to speak of. A perennial supporting actor and indelible salt of the earth persona, Stanton, with this film, has been given this rare, wonderful opportunity of putting a perfect button on his long and varied career and life. He in nearly every frame of this custom crafted work, Lucky being both a loving character portrait and an unforgettable personal send-off. In the best way possible, it’s impossible to divorce the film/character from the man on screen.

Not all that much is said during Lucky, particularly not by its title character. Yet, his eyes speak volumes. Volumes and volumes, of books, of songs, of life. Depending on one’s outlook, there’s a profound sadness in the character’s resolve that the only things that matter to us are the this that matter to us, and in the end, we are all nothing. Yet, Lucky, in its own quietly oblique way, charts this geriatric soul’s mini-journey to some form of greater enlightenment, via a pack-a-day-habit.

Somewhere in here is a balance and resolution between objective and subjective truth. For a plotless, dust-kicking Southwestern meander of of movie, this one sure has a lot to say, a lot of seeds for further thought. Every character, however screenwritely or on-and-gone they prove to be, is on a journey of some sort. No one is less than human; everyone is broken and bleeding in that invisible sense. This is no less true of even the “bloodsucking” insurance salesman, played by Ron Livingston.

Around Harry Dean, the rest of the film is filled with noteworthy supporting character appearances, most of which pop in and out of the movie for one scene only, Joe Versus the Volcano style. Every one of them is colorful and memorable, and most come bearing a poignant monologue. Former Nostromo shipmate Tom Skerrit wanders through to share an intense little recollection. Ed Begley Jr. is a doctor who gives Lucky some counter intuitive advice. James Darren re-emerges to chat it up with Lucky in the neighborhood watering hole and to brag about his relationship with the seasoned and sassy waitress played by Beth Grant. Even she gets a rowdy moment in the spotlight, or two.

But the biggest story among them, and most irresistible, is the inclusion of David Lynch as Lucky’s dapper drinking buddy. Lynch and Stanton have long been close friends in real life, and the authenticity of the bond is felt. Lynch plays a man much the opposite of Lucky, yet very much right in synch. Updating everyone throughout the story on the plight of his lost tortious (don’t call it a turtle) named President Roosevelt, Lynch’s character, Howard, is a fragile, empathic man, sensitive and caring to even the most absurd of God’s creatures.

Maybe it’s my current Lynch kick taking, but his performance – his very presence – is something indelible in Lucky. Any number of more experienced seasoned actors could’ve played the part well, perhaps even crushingly well. But then, would would Howard’s frustrated, pained speech about the nobility of the tortoise be among the great movie moments of the year? No it would not. I’ll say it now: David Lynch for Best Supporting Actor.

David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton in LUCKY.

Lucky, the directorial debut by actor John Carroll Lynch (Zodiac, The Founder; no relation to David), is not a film without it’s flaws. It sets out to be both earthy and profound, and while it pulls that balancing act off rather wonderfully, there’s a slightly distracting amateur quality about it. Certain establishing shots have a weird lightweight, handheld feel about them, almost as though they were shot on a phone. The screenplay by both Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja is, besides Stanton himself, the true glue holding this little movie together. At times, it’s a frustratingly on the nose (atheist Lucky’s customary greeting at the diner: “You’re nothing!”), but for the most part, it’s all achingly beautiful.

It’s hard to imagine this film without Harry Dean Stanton, muttering, ambling, singing and smoking his way through it. Quite fortunately, John Carroll Lynch was able to see the planets align in order for this project, against so many odds, to become a reality. Does that make us all lucky? No. It makes us blessed.