Lucky follows the journey of a 90-year-old atheist who finds himself at the precipice of life. It begins like a beautifully slow comedy, filled with the quirks of Lucky’s daily routine and his almost mystical interactions with the town’s unique characters, but then it expands into a heart wrenching meditation on death; an unhurried exploration of what it means to embrace the certainty of mortality.
Acclaimed character actor John Carroll Lynch’s remarkable directorial debut, Lucky is not just an observation of a character’s impending death, but also a love letter to the career of Harry Dean Stanton, who plays the lead role with the performance of a lifetime. Written by Logan Sparks – who is an old friend of Stanton – and Drago Sumonja, the script in many ways feels biographical, honouring the life of Stanton, and valuing the wisdom, experience and skill he brought to the film.
This is a story about a man who, having outlived and out-smoked all of his contemporaries, realises that he may only have weeks and months to live, not years or decades. Self-reliant, and fiercely independent, Lucky finds himself thrust into a journey of self-exploration, examining his place in the godless universe, having to confront his isolation and loneliness, and trying to contemplate being near the end of his life. On his daily walks into town, he has interactions with its unique characters, but all of them remain distant from him; it seems that his self-reliance, whilst keeping him alive, has also kept him from intimacy. Being so self-sufficient has a cost: the price of human connection. Faced with his own vulnerability, Lucky finds himself alone.
It’s not that people don’t try to connect with Lucky, but his obstinate ways and insistence of a solitary life makes it hard for anyone to truly reach him. There’s his friend Howard, played by another real-life friend of Stanton, director David Lynch, whose monologue about a missing tortoise is simultaneously tragic and endearing; Dr Kneedler (Ed Begley Jr) who tries to reassure Lucky after he has a fall, “You’re just old and you’re getting older”; Bobby Lawrence (Ron Livingston), a life insurance salesman, who battles through Lucky’s dismissiveness; and Fred (Tom Skerritt) and Elaine (Beth Grant), with whom Lucky has bar conversations about realism versus nothingness. For them all, the desert landscape around the town acts as a reminder of its isolated location, and a metaphor: the tumbleweed and wildlife slowly passes with no one to witness it, the dust settling anew as time, and living things, move on.
Carroll Lynch manages to craft an exquisite story, enhanced by stunning cinematography (Tim Suhrstedt) and a haunting, melancholic soundtrack, including songs by Stanton himself, and the heartbreaking I See A Darkness by Johnny Cash, which will make even the most hardened viewer crumble. Carroll Lynch’s vast experience as an actor clearly shows he knows when to stand back and let the performances shine through: Stanton gives everything he has got in this film and it’s tremendously moving.
Weighed down by existential questions, Lucky carries the burden of life’s unanswered questions on his sun-lined face; it’s a fearless portrayal of someone facing the finality of their life, and a bittersweet poignancy seeing it, because days before the US theatrical release of Lucky in September 2017, Stanton died aged 91. Lucky turned out to be one of Stanton’s final performances, and, as in his life, in Lucky we are left with a breathtakingly beautiful body of work to remember him by.
Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack