Lucky

Lucky-rev Lucky  (2017)    Magnolia/Drama    RT: 88 minutes    No MPAA rating (thematic elements, language)    Director: John Carroll Lynch    Screenplay: Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja    Music: Elvis Kuehn    Cinematography: Tim Suhrstedt    Release date: October 6, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt, Beth Grant, James Darren, Barry Shabaka Henley, Yvonne Huff, Hugo Armstrong, Bertila Damas.

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 Cinema lost one of its greatest treasures when Harry Dean Stanton passed away last month at 91. His career of more than 60 years was nothing short of amazing. He was an incredible actor whose mere presence elevated every movie he was in. One of his greatest performances is Travis, the aimless drifter at the center of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). Other memorable films include Alien, Repo Man, Pretty in Pink, Wild at Heart, The Straight Story and The Green Mile. Stanton caps off his impressive career with Lucky, a beautiful film about a 90-year-old man coming to terms with his mortality. Even though it’s not his final film (he co-stars in Frank & Ava, not sure when it’s coming out), I can’t imagine a better swan song for such a wonderful actor.

 Lucky-posterI pretty much described the plot in the previous paragraph but I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to elaborate a bit. Lucky (Stanton), a crusty old curmudgeon living in a small, off-the-map desert town, has always lived life on his own terms. A WWII vet who’s never been married, each day is pretty much the same. He wakes up, does a few yoga exercises and heads out to the local diner for coffee, conversation and crossword puzzles. He runs a few errands before going home to watch his game shows. Most nights, he hangs out in a local bar where he engages in philosophical discussions with the other patrons. One day, he falls down in his kitchen. His doctor (Begley, St. Elsewhere) can’t find a medical reason and attributes it to Lucky being old and getting older. He’s actually amazed his patient is in such good health given his age and the pack-a-day smoking habit he’s had for most of his life. The episode in his kitchen causes him to start seeing things differently. The realization that the end is near hits him hard; for the first time in his life, he’s scared.

 For me, Stanton was one of the most interesting actors in the industry. He only got better as he got older. There was something about him- most likely, his weathered face and wiry features- that made him stand out. It was always a pleasure to see him in a movie or TV show (like the recent Twin Peaks revival). Although he usually played supporting roles, his unlikelihood as a leading man made him the ideal lead actor. Lucky is easily Stanton’s finest performance since Paris, Texas. Scratch that. It’s his finest performance EVER! His recent passing makes it all the more poignant. If any actor ever deserved a posthumous Oscar, it’s Stanton. I really hope the Academy takes notice and acts accordingly. Lucky is the kind of guy who speaks his mind and doesn’t give a hoot what others think. He turned off the censor button a long time ago. He’s crabby, argumentative and stubborn. He’d rather debate than converse, especially with younger people like the insurance agent (Livingston, Office Space) he’s sure is trying to con a friend. For all his personality flaws, you can’t help but like the old coot.

 As for the movie itself, Lucky is one of my favorite films of the year. It might even be the best film I’ve seen this year. The more I think about it, the more I love it. It’s the directorial debut of actor John Carroll Lynch who audiences might remember played Frances McDormand’s supportive husband in the Coen Brothers masterpiece Fargo. It’s not often a filmmaker gets it right the first time up to bat but Lynch hits a home run with Lucky. It’s a very humble movie that has the sense to hang back and let the characters control the narrative. It lets them talk. Each scene goes on exactly as long as it needs to. It moves at a steady languid pace but it’s never boring. It’s simply made; it doesn’t try to dazzle the viewer with fancy camerawork or editing. Movies about eccentric people in small nowhere towns have become commonplace but Lynch makes Lucky feel fresh and exciting. It’s one of those movies that just draws you into its little world and makes you feel welcome as you play the role of observer.

 The supporting cast is a virtual treasure trove headed by David Lynch (no relation to this movie’s director), a longtime friend who directed Stanton in a few projects. He plays best buddy Howard who’s distressed over his missing pet, a 100-year-old tortoise named President Roosevelt. Whatever you do, don’t ever refer to him as a turtle. Nattily dressed in a cream-colored suit and white fedora, Howard is a real character. Beth Grant of TV’s The Mindy Project (now in its final season) plays the owner of the bar frequented by Lucky. She and her husband Paulie (Darren, TJ Hooker) are two of the folks in Lucky’s circle of friends. One of the best bits features Stanton’s Alien co-star Tom Skerritt as a fellow WWII vet who shares a war story with Lucky at the coffee shop. It’s great to see these guys share the screen again.

 Speaking of great scenes (and there are many) in Lucky, one that really stands out is when Lucky sings a soulful version of the Mexican folk song “Volver, Volver” at a child’s birthday fiesta accompanied by a mariachi band. It’s quite moving if you understand the lyrics; the song, much like the movie, deals with regret. Music is a crucial element of Lucky. The score often features a harmonica solo of “Red River Valley” (played by Stanton himself). The soundtrack features the Johnny Cash song “I See a Darkness”, one the singer’s latter-day songs about the inevitability of his own death. The cinematography is also terrific. Lucky has many images of the main character walking through his desolate town against a backdrop of sun-drenched Western-style panoramas. The film’s enduring image is the final one where Stanton walks off into the desert alone. We watch as he heads off into the unknown, his image getting smaller and farther. Lucky is Stanton’s cinematic wave goodbye to the world. What a beautiful exit. Rest easy, sir. 

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