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Friday, October 20, 2017

Review: LUCKY Is A Memorable Exit For An American Icon

In September of this year, Harry Dean Stanton passed away. The legendary character actor was mourned, though it was pretty much universally acknowledged that he was also 91, with a phenomenal career and long, good life behind him. His first acting role was in 1951; his last leading role was in 1984. Stanton had just... always been with us. He was one of those character actors even casual film and television fans would always recognize, because, well, he's pretty much always memorable. The list of the work he left behind as a supporting actor is almost staggering - Twin Peaks, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Twister, The Last Temptation of Christ, Repo Man, Escape From New York, Alien, and many more. It's fitting, then, that 2017 also gave us Lucky, Stanton's first leading role in decades, a film about growing old and letting go. This is how you say goodbye.

Lucky is largely plotless. In it, Stanton plays Lucky, an old, reclusive cowboy whose daily routine is set, and seemingly has been forever -- until he collapses one morning in his living room while staring at a digital clock stuck at 12:00. The doctor isn't worried, though. Lucky doesn't have cancer, or any other terminal disease; he's just old. There's no treatment for old. Lucky had never really thought about death. He'd fought in World War II. He'd smoked all his life. But age? He doesn't seem to have really considered old age, or death, or what he was leaving behind. And for the rest of the movie, Lucky is forced to do so.

It should go without saying, but Stanton - always good - is excellent here. Lucky begins the movie as an incredibly isolated figure. Most of his interactions are with people in service positions - doctors, waiters, cashiers - who see him regularly enough that he's developed relationships with them. Because of this, Stanton's struggle doesn't really play out in the dialogue, which is often sparse and... not formal, but that kind of distant, codified speech you slip into with people you see regularly but have no real relationship with. But as his routine shifts, he finds that the people in his life care more about him than he thought, and that helps make him more open to forging more personal relationships. I think this is a big part of what helps a potentially bleak film about confronting one's own mortality so much warmer and more enjoyable than it seems. In a way, the movie is about a sudden shock bringing Lucky back to life, back to a world he seemingly left behind, and it takes a performer of Stanton's ability to keep an audience engaged with someone through the darker parts of that process.

This is the directorial debut of character actor John Carroll Lynch (The Invitation), and Lynch - no stranger to making the most of a small role - lets Stanton command the audience. He understands the power of Stanton's face and body language, and through long stretches follows Stanton through basic things: A visit to the diner, a visit to the convenience store, light exercise, game shows, bar. But the film is full of memorable small roles too, and as Lucky opens up, a slew of excellent little performances pop up as well. Ron Livingston (The Office) is here as a life insurance salesman who pops up at the worst moment, but finds surprising dignity in an easily-vilified role. Yvonne Huff has a couple good scenes as a waitress who reaches out to Lucky only to be a bit put off when Lucky gets uncomfortably honest. Even David Lynch is here in a small role as one of Lucky's few real friends, an aging man distraught that his beloved tortoise has run away. The interactions here are small and low stake, but the actors filling these roles do so with an offbeat humanism that give Lucky's world a lived-in feeling.

Lucky is a sweet film about coming to terms with old age, and while it's occasionally mournful, it's rarely melancholic thanks to Stanton's prickly presence. There's some heavy shit in Lucky, but it never feels heavy; even at its darkest, Stanton's performance gave me something concrete to latch onto, a guide through the darkness and into the other side. One late-film moment is, I think, a great encapsulation as to how best we can face the tragedy at the end of all our lives, as Stanton - arguing over something meaningless that becomes surprisingly meaningful out of nowhere - makes a cogent argument for saying fuck it, sticking by what you believe, and going out with a smile. Lucky is the perfect swan song for a great performer.

Lucky is out now in limited release, and arrives at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta on October 20th. Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja and directed by John Carroll Lynch, Lucky stars Harry Dean Stanton.
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