OnScreen Review: “Lucky”

Noah Golden

It’s more than just a cliché at this point, it’s almost a whole genre. There’s a lonely, stuck in a rut old coot whose heart grows three sizes in the resulting 90-or-so minutes after an unexpected person (or persons) tramples into their neatly curated life. Entries that range from good (“Gran Torino”) to poor (the schmaltzy Swedish import “A Man Called Ove”), but it’s never been a film formula I’ve really cotton to. When the new Harry Dean Stanton film “Lucky” began, it looked like we were in for a Southwestern-spiced variation on that well-worn story. But as this shaggy-dog tale progressed, it became clear “Lucky” is something entirely different. It’s a modest but emotionally rich slice of life picture that’s bolstered by an incredible lead performance.

In a small desert town lives Lucky, a WWII vet who has spent the better part of his adult life living a solitary and mundane existence. He does some yoga exercises in the morning and then heads to a local diner for a cup of coffee. His afternoons are spent watching game shows on TV and his evenings are whiled away at a dingy but friendly watering hole.

Lucky for us, the titular old man is played by veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton who passed away at age 91 some months after filming. Despite few leading man credits, Stanton’s IMDB resume has nearly 200 credits ranging from “Alien” to “The Green Mile” and back. This cinematic swan song, written for him by friends Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, is not just a culmination of his career but a master class for film actors. His performance is subtle but complex and Stanton hits it out of the park, doing more with a withering glance than most actors can in an entire movie. From the deep-seeded pain in his eyes to the trite aphorisms that somehow feel organic in his gravely drawl, it’s clear Stanton elevates what could be a sleepy script into a moving portrait of a man faced with his own mortality.

This largely plotless film revolves around Lucky’s day-to-day routine and his interactions with the down-to-earth folks who populate his hometown. Played by a well-acted ensemble of fresh faces and veterans alike, Lucky has terrific duet scenes with his doctor (a scene-stealing Ed Begley Jr) and a talkative traveler (Tom Skerritt). There’s also the tough barmaid (Beth Grant), friendly bodega owner (Bertila Damas) and smug lawyer (Ron Livingston). My favorite moments of “Lucky,” though, are the conversations he shares with Loretta, a kindly waitress beautifully played by Yvonne Huff, and Howard, a barfly played by director David Lynch. Both have such a warm, comfortable on-screen presence and Lynch expertly downplays a quirky character that could have otherwise felt out of place. Howard, you see, recently lost his pet tortoise, an event which sparks many a discussion on aging, death and freedom. It’s a unique, sympathetic and peculiar character, the type Lynch is perfect to portray.

It’s not unfit to call “Lucky” odd. In its meandering story and clearly stated philosophizing, it’s closer to short story form than your typical American film. One could easily see some theatergoers walking away bored or unimpressed. But “Lucky” is a deceptively simple film that is thoroughly well directed by first-time filmmaker/character actor John Carroll Lynch and a beautiful showcase for a terrific performer who didn’t always get the limelight he deserved. “Lucky” is thoughtful and soulful and well worth your time.

Rating 4 out of 5 stars

Note: I saw “Lucky” as a member of The Cinema Club at the Madison Arts Cinema. The Club, which takes place at eight cities nationwide, offers members screenings of yet-to-be-released independent or foreign films along with discussions lead by film scholars and critics. “Lucky” will be available on very limited release starting on September 29.