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Movie Review: This Tribute Demonstrates Why We Were 'Lucky' to Have Harry Dean Stanton


Published October 25, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 26, 2017 at 11:42 p.m.

A boney old guy in sagging drawers, cowboy boots and a hat watering a cactus plant. Not a classically dramatic image for a movie poster. But then, the old guy happens to be Harry Dean Stanton. And the movie was conceived by friends as a vehicle for celebrating the iconic actor. All things considered, the graphic is picture-perfect.

Stanton was 89 when he shot Lucky and died at 91, a couple of weeks before it hit theaters. Few actors, however great, get a send-off as funny, touching and loving as this one. It's clear in every frame that the star realized what a gift he'd been given.

The directorial debut of actor John Carroll Lynch (Fargo), the picture does a lot with a little. As Stanton's buddy Charles Bukowski was fond of saying, "Genius may be the ability to say a complicated thing in a simple way." Collaborating with their subject, allowing him to weave details from his life into their script, screenwriters Drago Sumonja and Logan Sparks come stunningly close to meeting that standard.

Lucky opens with shots of the Arizona desert; not long after, it follows the title character as he traverses the terrain on one of his daily pilgrimages into town. This, of course, is a reference to the opening scene of Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984), in which Stanton gave the performance of which he claimed to be most proud. Instead of a hawk, we glimpse a tortoise shuffling through the brush. Its name is President Roosevelt. More on that shortly.

Lucky lives a life defined by simple routine: coffee and a crossword at the diner, TV in the afternoon, then Bloody Marias at Elaine's after dark. The barflies include the owner (Beth Grant), her husband, Paulie (James Darren), and the dapper Howard, played with obvious affection by David Lynch. The talk leapfrogs among philosophy, religion and the distressing disappearance of Howard's pet tortoise and lifemate. "He affected me!"

Over 88 minutes, the cycle repeats, with several standout moments. After a fall, Lucky visits his doctor (Ed Begley Jr.), who advises him not to quit smoking. He declares Lucky a "scientific anomaly" endowed with the rare opportunity to live as long as he has and remain cogent enough to "witness what you're going through, examine it ... and accept it."

Tom Skerritt reunites with his Alien castmate as a vet who swaps stories one morning in the diner. Lucky tells a few about his days in the Navy (all true). Skerritt appears convincingly haunted as his character recalls landing on Okinawa and watching the Japanese throw their children off cliffs to save them from mistreatment by the marines.

When Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described the five stages of dying, she left out a big one: listening to Johnny Cash in the middle of the night. The director is not so careless. A scene in which "I See a Darkness" plays as Lucky ponders the future says it all.

This is a wistful, wise and fearless film. The writing is remarkable, each performance a compact marvel. Tim Suhrstedt's lensing elevates the ragged landscape to the level of a character as weather-beaten as its star. Almost.

Stanton's career spanned from Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956) to Cool Hand Luke (1967) to "Big Love" (2010) to this year's "Twin Peaks: The Return." Without a minute to spare, the movie's creators tailor-made him the role of a lifetime. We who get to witness his final lead performance are the ones who should count ourselves lucky.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Lucky"