When Harry Dean Stanton died a few weeks ago at the age of 91, it seemed impossible he was really gone. Stanton had been a fixture in movies and television (but mostly movies) for decades, bringing to life a collection of characters that seemingly no one else could pull off. He usually worked as a character actor showing up to steal a scene or two with his soulful eyes, haggard face, and distinctive voice that never fully slipped away from his Kentucky origins — tools of the trade he could use to create characters ranging from the pitiable to mysterious to menacing to tender. In his rare starring roles, Stanton proved he could be just as magnetic, often by doing less rather than more. To watch Stanton in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas is to see a true rarity: an actor comfortable simply being onscreen and confident in his ability to convey a full array of emotions with seemingly little effort.
Lucky, Stanton’s final film, shows that confidence remained undimmed even at the end of his career. Directed by John Carroll Lynch (no stranger to the world of character actors thanks to his work in everything from Fargo to Zodiac to American Horror Story) and written by Drago Sumonja and Logan Sparks (who once worked as Stanton’s assistant), it’s a wistful, unabashedly minor swan song that fittingly casts Stanton as a man recognizing he’s much closer to the end of his life than the beginning — and wondering what it all means.
Stanton plays Lucky, a loner who lives on the edge of some unnamed desert town and keeps to a routine. He gets up, smokes, exercises, has some coffee, then makes the rounds in town, stopping at a diner, and then a convenience store. Eventually, he heads home to watch some game shows after making his usual excuse (“Well, I gotta go, my shows are on”), then heads out to a bar presided over by the brassy Elaine (Beth Grant) and her smooth-voiced husband Paul (James Darren). There he talks to the regulars, who include Howard (David Lynch), a sensitive eccentric who spends much of the film wondering about the fate of his tortoise President Roosevelt, who’s made an unlikely escape. (“He had to have timed it out perfectly.”)
Lucky’s a likable crank whom everybody knows without really knowing. But a series of unexpected interactions threaten to change that, and to interrupt Lucky’s routine. At the diner, Lucky swaps WWII stories with a fellow veteran played by Tom Skerritt. (Stanton actually did serve in WWII. Skerritt, now 84, is a few years too young. Also worth noting: the scene doubles as an Alien reunion.) In one scene, Harry bawls out an insurance salesman (Ron Livingston) for trying to take advantage of Howard; later, he gets a different perspective when the salesman shares his story with him. A seemingly throwaway scene in which Loretta (Yvonne Huff), a diner waitress, checks in on Lucky and winds up smoking pot and watching clips of Liberace ends with Lucky expressing a rare admission of vulnerability.
Lucky sometimes plays like a collection of minor moments, and while they never add up to a major film, it would be hard to ask for a better final bow for Stanton. With another actor, the movie would just slip away or drown in preciousness. More than one scene involves characters discussing the meaning of the word “realism,” yet despite stretches in which Lucky seems eager to talk about its capital “T” themes out loud, it’s also filled with lovely moments of understatement, looks held for a few telling beats too long, conversations that take meandering turns before reaching unexpected dead ends, and anecdotes that reveal the hold Lucky’s past still has on him even at the end of his life.
Stanton could make even the most fleeting gesture seem significant, and in Lucky he finds a searching dignity even in scenes that find him standing in a cowboy hat and underwear. Stanton was an actor who — though far from chameleonic — could be equally convincing laying out the “Repo Code” in Repo Man and exuding paternal affection in Pretty in Pink. Here he gets a last starring role in a bittersweet sunset of a movie crafted as a tribute to everything that made him irreplaceable. It’s well-earned and beautifully played. Of course.
Lucky opens in limited release on Friday, September 27th before expanding.