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‘Lucky’ Gives Harry Dean Stanton the Swan-song He Deserves

Lucky is the second and tragically final time that Harry Dean Stanton took a lead role in a film, after Wim Wender’s 1984 masterpiece Paris, Texas. In many ways it feels as though his character in Paris, Texas just never stopped walking and wound up in a tiny town in New Mexico where all the locals know him as “Lucky”. Lucky is a ninety year old man who seems to be in perfect health, in spite of his smoking habit. He’s still sharp and more than willing to give people trouble if they come looking for it.

As far as plot goes that’s more or less it for Lucky. We see him go about his daily routine; waking up, doing some yoga, walking to a café in town, doing the crossword, swearing at a mysterious building, buying milk and then returning home to watch his shows before stepping out to a bar in town to have a drink and then turning in.

Very much like Jim Jarmush’s Patterson, Lucky’s life is simple but flavoured by eccentric characters, all played by wonderful character actors. David Lynch gives a beautiful turn as an old friend of Lucky’s who has lost his pet tortoise, President Roosevelt. Lynch is perfectly madcap as usual but is also surprisingly tragic and endearing. Ron Livingston is the insurance salesman with a newly found respect for life, Ed Begley Jr. is a classic blunt doctor, Beth Grant is a feisty bar owner, James Darren is her hopelessly romantic husband and Barry Shabaka Henley is the no-nonsense owner of the town café. These  performances really bring the town to life and give Stanton some challenging talent to spar with.

All of these characters look to Lucky with concern, but also for insight into what it’s like to live to such a ripe old age and still have all your faculties. Harry Dean Stanton gives one of his very best performances as the grouchy but deeply sentimental Lucky. He is given opportunities for sardonic comedy, sincere sweetness and even a moment to showcase his talents as a singer. Stanton’s full range is on display here and he rises to the challenge with enormous energy and skill.

Lucky was actually directed by another great character actor, John Carroll Lynch of Zodiac and Fargo fame. He attended our screening along with one of the screenwriters Logan Sparks, who had been Harry Dean Stanton’s assistant for many years. The two of them talked about how the film came about because of Stanton and much of the script was based on him and things he had said and done. There is a real authenticity at the heart of this zany comedy.

Lucky is a film about death. It’s a film filled with angst and sorrow. But the comedy isn’t just there to make the sadness palatable, it is a solution offered by the film as an answer to the horrors of oblivion. When asked what we should do in the face of the great nothingness, Lucky simply smiles in reply. The final shot of Stanton is a perfect send off for the man and something I will never forget.

Harry Dean Stanton spent his career bringing great life to the tiny parts he filled. That this should only be his second lead performance in his lifetime is a tragedy. Luckily, first time director John Carroll Lynch has made a film that is a celebration of the man and the absolute perfect goodbye to one of the understated artists in cinema.

5 / 5

Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.