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‘Lucky’ Is a Tribute to Harry Dean Stanton’s Unforgettable Face

The late actor made a career as a memorable scene-stealer, but in John Carroll Lynch’s film, he runs the whole show

Harry Dean Stanton in ‘Lucky’ Magnolia Pictures

Lucky, the title character of John Carroll Lynch’s new film, is a single older man. He’s got no kids, no pets, and no siblings that we know of. Played by Harry Dean Stanton—one of his last roles—he’s a 90-year-old who lives alone in an off-the-map desert town. All he’s got, besides a great view of the nearby hills and a handful of local friends, is a routine. Every day he wakes up, scrubs his underarms with a heavy cloth, shaves, combs his hair, and does his exercises, which he kick-starts by stretching out his arms and spinning his body in circles. All of this to prepare for a day of his usual visits: a trip to the local diner to do his crossword and be lovingly harassed by its owner, Joe; a trip to a convenience store; a trip to the bar, for a Bloody Mary and some bullshitting; and then back home to finish his crossword and watch his shows.

It’s a lovely but vigorous routine for an older man getting by entirely on foot, and you sense Lucky wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s confident in his normalcy. Despite smoking a pack a day and being thin as a rail, with a head of hair worn down to sad wisps, Lucky is a man in high-enough spirits and with excellent health. That is, until the morning he has a dizzy spell and falls.

Lucky is a movie about a man who doesn’t seem to realize how lonely he is until a scare throws his world off its axis. Before the fall, everything is bullshit—endearingly so. The past doesn’t matter, at least not in an immediate sense, and the future seems, if not guaranteed in perpetuity, at least not explicitly questioned. But after the fall, Lucky confesses to a friend that he’s scared. He goes to the bar, and his friends all seem to have someone—even his eccentric pal Howard (played by David Lynch). Howard is alone, too, but he nonetheless feels that, after death, he’s leaving someone behind: his ancient tortoise, which has gone missing. Howard has hired a lawyer to sign his possessions over to the tortoise when he dies. So, at least there’s that. Who’s Lucky got?

Lucky, which was written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, is absolutely concerned with the grim prospect of mortality. Really, though, it’s about fear itself. The movie teases out Lucky’s fear in scenes that range from sharply insightful to cringingly maudlin. There are literal high points, like Lucky’s favorite waitress swinging by to smoke him out and keep him company, for no other reason than out of concern and affection. (Maybe Lucky isn’t as alone as he thinks.) And then there are lows: moments when the movie reduces Lucky’s loneliness to bleak musical montages or lingers more than it has to on his cavernous cheekbones in order, you sense, to double-underline the point.

It’s an imperfect movie, but a worthwhile one. Its chief benefit is that it knows why we’re here: for its star. Especially now. Stanton, who died earlier this month, was most often a supporting player who in the space of a scene could manage to overwhelm a movie, as in the case of his small role in David Lynch’s The Straight Story—another, greater film about aging men. Stanton is there for a single scene—the final one, in fact, which is a moment of brotherly reconciliation. In terms of lines, the role is a pittance. But in terms of the rich, private histories Stanton is able to evoke in a mere glance, it’s the performance of a lifetime.

Stanton’s most noted role is in the Wim Wenders classic Paris, Texas, yet another movie about an aging (albeit younger) loner forced to reckon with his regrets. We may as well call this Stanton’s lane: There’s long been a world of loneliness summed up in that face. Stanton was 58 when he starred in Paris, Texas, which was released in 1984, the same year as one of his biggest mainstream roles, in Repo Man. The height of his career, in other words, was, by Hollywood standards, already his “late career.” For as long as most of us have been aware of him, he has excelled embodying men filled with long, unspoken histories of regret. He tended to seem or play older than he was.

He wasn’t an actor who needed the camera or direction to underline the point of a scene; his face was always emphasis enough. Lucky’s director, John Carroll Lynch, mostly understands as much. Lynch is a remarkable character actor in his own right; this is his debut as a director. (Among friends I refer to him as “the Zodiac killer,” because of his memorable role as a suspect in David Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece Zodiac.) Like Stanton, Lynch is much bigger than any one role, and like Stanton, his is a face that seems to pop up everywhere in American movies. It makes sense that he’d want to play up what made Stanton so distinctive, in a movie premised on the kind of character that could suit only an actor of Stanton’s talent and stature.

It’s a role that depends, for one thing, on an utter lack of vanity. Lynch’s camera revels in the sight of Stanton’s aged body. He doesn’t shy away from the sagging arms, the spotty skin, the thinning hair. It’s almost uncomfortably intimate. But in retrospect, what a sight: to think that one of our last chances to see Stanton in a new film is one in which he bears himself open to us, showing us all—emotionally, physically—that he had to give. In Lucky he’s funny, he’s whip-smart, he’s physical—he even sings. (If you’ve seen the 2012 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, the singing is less of a shock.)

It is only right that Stanton’s last film should be one in which he is unequivocally the star, and that it should be a movie practically in his honor, from one character actor to another. Lynch uses this spare premise to gracefully evoke emptiness: in the hushed but welcoming dark of the local bar, in the horizons surrounding this desert town. But he also, through Stanton, evokes the fullness of life. Lucky is a somber movie, but not a tragic one. It ends with understanding, not condescension. It takes Lucky seriously because it takes life seriously—just as Stanton did. It takes Stanton seriously, above all.