In September, we lost one of America’s greatest actors at the ripe age of 91. Harry Dean Stanton was a man forever eluding time, his road-map face and cigarette-scruffed voice instantly recognizable since his rise to a niche brand of prominence in the 1970s. Thankfully, he left behind a final performance in the aptly-titled “Lucky.” The directorial debut of fellow actor John Carroll Lynch, the film almost exclusively functions as a platform for Stanton to thrive in his first major leading role since 1984’s “Paris Texas” and creates the best swan song he could have asked for.
The film doesn’t exactly have a plot. Instead, it tells the story of a 90-year-old World War II veteran, Lucky (Stanton), who lives in a small, unnamed Western town and spends his days doing the same collection of tasks. He wakes up, drinks a glass of milk, does some exercises and goes for a walk around town. When he visits a convenience store, he picks up some more milk and says hello in his wonky Spanish to the cashier Bibi (Bertila Damas), who invites him to her son’s birthday party. He heads home to watch game shows and do a crossword, he hits the local diner and goes to the bar for a drink at night. The bar is where he encounters most of the town’s colorful characters, including Howard (David Lynch) and his lawyer Bobby (Ron Livingston), who discuss leaving Howard’s belongings to his missing pet tortoise, President Roosevelt.
There’s an ingenious symbol of Lucky’s mortality in his living room clock, which is perpetually broken, frozen on 12 o’clock. When he tries to fix it, he passes out and goes to the doctor, who says that he is miraculously healthy for his age — even admitting that quitting his smoking habit would damage his health further. That incident provides a catalyst for Lucky’s spiritual journey, making a cantankerously existential, atheistic old man examine at the meaning of his life.
The entire cast is razor sharp in this slice of deserted Americana, even down to the smallest characters in the town. David Lynch is his enjoyably deadpan, weird self as Howard, perhaps the most memorable of the supporting cast. But the film belongs to Stanton. In essence, he plays himself as Lucky: a worn-down, cynical, but eternally cool and genuine man, always smoking a cigarette and musing on life’s inherent meaninglessness. It’s such a remarkable final role because it forces Stanton to reevaluate the image he had so carefully curated of himself through his choice of roles, big and small, throughout the years. He even has his own theme: a little harmonica ditty on the soundtrack that follows him around.
John Carroll Lynch uses a non-narrative structure with “Lucky,” similar to the one Jim Jarmusch employed with “Paterson” last year, focusing on a repetitive day-to-day narrative flow that allows the viewer to savor the slight details in a routine and find meaning in them. In this sense, the experience of watching “Lucky” itself parallels the journey of its main character, a thoughtful decision that only fosters greater empathy for the main character’s Sisyphean quest. Even though the film has its fair share of beautifully written, monosyllabic observations on philosophy and human existence, told as if they were campfire stories out on the dusty frontier, so much of its supposed message is left for viewers to interpret themselves.
At 88 minutes, the film never overstays its welcome but can admittedly feel a bit slight at times. It’s rare that a film should ever be a bit longer, but this is one of those cases. Another day in Lucky’s life would have even been sufficient to flesh out his character more thoroughly. The editing also has a few issues, such as a scene in a pet shop where there’s a jarringly abrupt cut that appears to be more of a mistake than a conscious artistic decision.
Despite the minor faults, “Lucky” is a life-affirming film. The film culminates in a show-stopping scene in which Stanton surprises a crowd of onlookers when he gorgeously sings along with a mariachi band in his sweetly imperfect Spanish. In the case of films that deal with aging, it’s easy to travel the route of bleak, crushing ruminations on one’s impending death. “Lucky” is downright subversive in that sense, with its warm, sensitive and often funny approach toward such a morbid subject. It’s as much a film about stumbling upon the meaning of life as it is about the simple joy of lighting one up when the bartender tells you not to.