There’s something comforting about Lucky. Maybe it’s first-time director John Carroll Lynch’s eye for the western setting without making it overbearing; maybe it’s the late Harry Dean Stanton’s soft-spoken swan song of a performance as an old bachelor who wanders around town in a cowboy hat; maybe it’s the just the ebullient, cantankerous approach Lucky takes to approaching death.
As the great actors of previous generations start to age, we’ve seen quite a number of movies about what it means to get old and how to take stock of what we leave behind. This is the version of that story that says “fuck you” to that kind of movie and, in the process, searches for something deeper than “goodbye.”
Lucky follows the titular character as he travels around his small town, interacting with the various people in his life at the diner, at his bar, at his doctor’s office, at the general store. Early in the film, Lucky plays along with a game show, looking up the two definitions of realism. One is “the practice of accepting a situation as it is and dealing with it accordingly.” He tosses it around in his head for a little while. He shares it with his friends at the local bar where he hangs out.
What at first seems to be a small-town comedy tone morphs into a more reflective piece when Lucky suffers a fall. But the fall doesn’t put him into some maudlin mood or guide the story as you’d expect. Rather, it sets the movie into an ever-expanding exploration of what it means to be alive, to connect to other people, to understand what is real.
Stanton could not have had a better final role. As he grew old, his features lost none of their expressiveness. His ability to convey so much with silence so gently, so deeply never waned.
“It doesn’t exist,” Lucky muses. “What?” asks a friend. “The soul,” he replies, matter-of-factly.
Whether the soul is a tangible thing is questionable, but as a metaphor it is apt here because everything audiences have ever found compelling about Stanton as a character, an actor and a person can be found in Lucky.
Stanton has often mused in interviews about what it all means, and although he was known for a certain nihilism, he never seemed to be angsty or possessed about it. Lucky isn’t a nihilistic movie or at least not the annoying kind. Lucky’s defiance and his closing monologues are those of a man with philosophical clarity; his interactions with his friends and neighbors are those of a man who lives presently.
At one point Johnny Cash’s version of “I See a Darkness” plays, and it’s another case where a Cash song is so appropriate for the tone of a story that it would’ve been creative malpractice for Lynch not to feature it.
Well, you know I have a love, a love for everyone I know.
And you know I have a drive to live, I won’t let go.
But can you see this opposition comes rising up sometimes?
That its dreadful imposition comes blacking in my mind.
The song sums up the story of the movie. Don’t worry about it.
During his travels, Lucky runs into his friend Howard (David Lynch), whose tortoise, Mr. Roosevelt, has gone missing; what happened to Mr. Roosevelt and how Howard deals with it is a charming background story and also forms a great bookend for the movie’s themes. David Lynch is not an actor, although he loves to try at it. Sure, he sounds like he’s screaming, but he’s always so earnest, involved and confident. Like his old friend Stanton, David Lynch shows up to help express, with some defiance, the act of finding meaning and fighting for it, whatever that meaning may be.
Lucky is one of this year’s best movies. It opens at Keystone Art Cinema on October 27 and is the sort of movie that probably won’t play there longer than a few weeks at best — not due to quality but just the ever-constant shuffling of great movies on and off those few arts screens. Make every effort to see it.