There were few men like Harry Dean Stanton. A legend whose career spanned 60+ years, with very few bad films. His first role came all he way back in 1954 on the horror anthology television series Inner Sanctum. He made his film debut a few years later in what else but a Western in 1957’s Tomahawk Trail. For the next six decades, he existed – with a few notable exceptions – as a man who always seemed to be on the periphery of our collective consciousness, an actor whom who always knew, but didn’t necessarily “know”.
Which brings us to Lucky, an existential and philosophical journey of a ninety year-old atheist from John Carroll Lynch, making his directorial debut after years performing in front of the camera. The plot is incredibly subtle to the point of non-existence, instead focusing on its nonagenarian hero who spends his days drinking coffee with way too much cream and sugar, sipping bloody marys, and phoning up friends whenever he has trouble with his crossword, which he does daily. The latter activity leads him to the discovery that “realism is a thing”, in one of the most starkly wriest bits of text I have come across in recent memory.
His quest for truth at the bar is interrupted by David Lynch who laments that President Roosevelt has gone missing. Yes, the David Lynch. In a hilariously expert bit of casting, the famed surrealist director is cast as Stanton’s best friend Howard, a man whose meeting with a lawyer -and subsequent drawing of a will, in which he leaves everything to his pet tortoise, the aforementioned Roosevelt – starts Lucky on his journey.
Stanton as Lucky/Films We Like
Lucky only runs 82 minutes, although its appropriate slow place makes it feel many minutes longer. In addition to Stanton and Lynch the film stars a veritable who’s-who of Old Hollywood – Tom Skerritt, Ed Begley Jr, Beth Grant, and James Darren in a brilliant performance, as well as the always pleasant Ron Livingston. For me however, the real standout is the film’s composer Elvis Kuehn. Much of the film’s score is a breathtakingly rebellious harmonica played to its bluesy perfection during establishing shots and Stanton walking scenes. It gravitates to on-camera in its final appearance, as we see Lucky playing away to pass the time. That coupled with the blues and folk tunes expertly compiled by music supervisors by Mikki Itzigsohn and Lauren Mikus make it a hauntingly spiritual catharsis.
It is a beautiful tribute that one of Stanton’s last works should feature music so heavily; in addition to his harmonica playing, he himself contributes two songs to the soundtrack, including one in Spanish – the popular Volver, Volver – which he sings on camera towards the end of the film. It is a terrific send-off.
In the film Lucky comments that “memory is a funny thing” and how “nothing is permanent”. Sometimes the most powerful statements are the most subtle. Paulie, the character so beautifully portrayed by Darren explains to Lucky how “friendship is essential to the soul”. Whether or not one believes in the soul as an entity is subjective and somewhat irrelevant as for me friendship can be heartbreakingly healing, I would imagine more so towards the end of one’s life.
At its core, Lucky is wonderfully emotional film about coming to terms with our lives and who better to lead us on that journey than a man who certainly lived it to the fullest. Harry Dean Stanton, thank you. We salute you.