The title character of Lucky, the directorial debut from actor John Carroll Lynch (his long resume includes key roles in Fargo and Zodiac, among others), is a 90-year-old atheist and curmudgeon who lives in his small yet well-kept house in a remote desert town. He has no family that we know of and speaks little of his past, but he is embraced by the townspeople, who clearly have affection for him — even if he doesn’t quite return it — as he makes his daily walk through the dusty village. Life is simple for Lucky, but at his age, he’s feeling the weight of knowing that there may not be much of it left.
Lucky is played by the great Harry Dean Stanton and, as it comes out in the wake of Stanton’s passing at the age of 91 just two weeks ago, the film now serves as a melancholy, bittersweet tribute to a man who was the quintessential character actor. But Lucky was apparently meant to honor Stanton already: the script was co-written by his friend Logan Sparks, stories from Stanton’s own life were woven into the dialogue, and the film was shot near his home so he could sleep in his own bed at night.
Even without the context of Stanton’s death, Lucky is a lovely little tone poem that focuses on the big questions — death, companionship, loneliness, mortality — and filters them through the perspective of a man who realizes that he has to finally face these issues. But the film doesn’t do it in any big, melodramatic way: there are no sudden brushes with death or spectacularly transcendent payoffs. Instead, Lucky has a quiet series of encounters and subtle epiphanies that lead him, ever so gently, to a kind of peace and acceptance.
Stanton, of course, is as watchable as ever in a role that blurs the line between real life and fiction, and his innate, unique mix of earthiness and mystery makes Lucky likable and empathetic even when he’s growling little digs at his neighbors. He’s joined by a cast that partially serves as a Stanton filmography: David Lynch is an odd delight as Lucky’s child-like best friend Howard, while Ed Begley Jr., James Darren, Beth Grant, Ana Mercedes, Ron Livingston and Yvonne Huff provide a well-rounded cast of supporting townspeople. In one memorable encounter, Stanton is reunited with his Alien castmate Tom Skerritt for the first time since they shot that movie; the two men — whose characters are both veterans — sharing more in their silences about their wartime experience than any dialogue could achieve.
John Carroll Lynch acquits himself nicely as a director here, painting a slightly unsettling and atmospheric portrait of a town where there doesn’t seem to be a lot of people still around, yet giving its inhabitants and especially his star a kind of dignity that only people who live off the grid can muster for themselves. Not much really happens in Lucky in the traditional narrative sense, but Lynch’s languid pace is hypnotic and slightly surreal, adding a touch of the other man named Lynch who’s involved with the film.
Yet above all, this is Harry Dean Stanton’s showcase, and intentionally or not, it provides a wonderful and gently moving capstone to a career and life the likes of which we might never see again. For more than sixty years, we were all lucky to have Harry Dean Stanton flicker across our screens, where his memory will live on.
Lucky is out in theaters today (Friday, September 29).