LUCKY (2017)

One-line review: Harry Dean Stanton plays mostly himself in his befitting last hurrah.

I discovered Lucky after a recent rewatch of Fargo and John Carroll Lynch’s brief but unforgettable turn as Marge’s adoring husband in it. As I explored his other works, I stumbled upon his solo directorial venture: Lucky. The film was written for Harry Dean Stanton by his long-time assistant Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, a regular drinking partner. Drago, who is friends with Carroll Lynch and knew of his directorial ambitions, initially called him to act in the film but later offered him the director’s role. 

Harry Dean Stanton was eighty-nine when he played Lucky and passed away the same year. The film was shot in twenty days, no mean feat for a rookie director. Another challenge for John Carroll Lynch was Harry Dean Stanton’s insistence on not wanting to “act;” apparently, he never acts in any films. Carroll Lynch however busts this myth in his obituary for Dean Stanton: HDS specifically asked for retakes in some crucial scenes in Lucky. To truly appreciate the film and HDS, you must also watch its companion piece, Sophie Huber’s excellent documentary on Dean Stanton, called Partly Fiction. HDS is an enigma who entered the hearts of his fans by just being himself and working till he dropped. The film’s writer, Logan Sparks, busts another myth about HDS: his motto of not wanting to work.  Sparks rightly points out that if HDS didn’t want to work, he would never have left his hometown, Kentucky, or worked for so long.   

The film is about Lucky, an eighty-nine-year-old loner (not lonely). Lucky lives a spartan lifestyle, is thin as a reed and appears never to eat (his fridge only has three milk cartons). He exercises regularly, walks everywhere, religiously does the daily crossword puzzle, speaks his mind, smokes like a chimney, and lets nothing interfere with his daily game show. He has several good friends and is a loyal friend. However, an accidental fall at home shakes up the unflappable Lucky. Although his doctor (Ed Beagley) tells him there’s nothing wrong with him, he also reminds Lucky that at eighty-nine, the end may be around the corner because the body inevitably starts to give in. This first brush with mortality rattles Lucky, and he retreats further into himself and strangely becomes more vulnerable. There’s not much of a story arc or climax, in keeping with one of the film’s memorable scenes where Lucky discusses the word “realism.” “Realism is a thing that enables you to see things as they are and deal with them.” 

Through a series of mundane but meaningful interactions, Lucky comes to terms with his reality: his impending death, although he cannot tell when because nothing is wrong with him. “I am scared,” he confides to the waitress who visits to check on him. He also attends the local bodega owner’s son’s birthday party, where he surprises everyone there with a heartfelt rendition of Volver Volver (the documentary showcases Dean Stanton’s singing chops, and he rues not pursuing music seriously amidst his acting career). Lucky also confronts his best friend Howard’s (a charmingly naive David Lynch) lawyer (Ron Livingston). Lucky thinks the lawyer is taking advantage of a vulnerable Howard, who is grieving the escape of his best friend, his pet tortoise, President Roosevelt. Lynch is a casting coup and delivers his ridiculous lines about his beloved tortoise with utmost seriousness melting our hearts. 

Eventually, it is a chance encounter with a fellow veteran, Fred (Tom Skerrit), which allows Lucky to reach the shores of acceptance of his mortality. Fred recalls an incident of a little girl coming face to face with the US troops when he was serving in the Philippines. Rather than being scared, the girl smiles sweetly at them. However, they realize it’s not a friendly smile but a smile accepting death because she is sure they are about to shoot her dead. This story affects Lucky, and the film ends with him smiling beatifically at the camera in the glorious sunset, with President Roosevelt crawling away in the background. Will Lucky see him and reunite him with Howard?

Everything about the film is sparse, yet beautiful. Caroll Lynch recalls the challenge of directing HDS because any request for a retake would be met with a question: “what’s wrong with this one”? Timothy Suhrstedt’s cinematography captures the beautiful deserts and the spirit of Lucky: alone but not lonely. Elvis Kuehn’s lilting background score perfectly complements the film. But in the end, the film’s weight is carried by the narrow shoulders of Harry Dean Stanton, whose wizened face conveys volumes even without any dialogue (he is a believer in the power of silence in real life too). He is cranky, yet his smile is tender, and he has a surprisingly good set of teeth for a man pushing ninety. The film also defiantly shows us his well-lived-in body up close, adding to the film’s authenticity. If you watch the documentary, you realize Harry Dean Stanton is not far removed from Lucky in real life, except that he has an active social life.     

At its core, Lucky is a film about the role of luck in our lives. How many men live a full life until their nineties, and how many actors can end their careers with a film lovingly written for them? And how lucky is John Carroll Lynch for being able to make his directorial debut with this beautiful movie? Although we think we make our luck, in reality, it is inexplicable, a freak of nature (quoting Lucky’s doctor). Therefore, the best we can do is keep smiling and hope that lady luck will smile back at us. 

Why watch it? To see how a true philosopher lets his life do the talking.

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