Harry Dean Stanton was that guy — one of those actors you’ve likely seen in one of your favorite movies. He was Emilio Estevez’s seasoned co-worker in Repo Man. He was Molly Ringwald’s not-rich dad in Pretty In Pink. He was the guy who strummed a guitar and crooned in Cool Hand Luke. He was the poor soul that got iced by a Xenomorph while Jonesy The Cat sat idly by and watched in Alien. He’s been in everything from Laverne And Shirley to Twin Peaks to Paris, Texas and even Steven Seagal’s enviro-actioner Fire Down Below.
Whenever a prolific filmmaker, actor, or writer passes away, I tend to look at past articles and blogs that discuss the artist and their work. It’s a wistful, melancholic hobby I ‘spose. Last month, shortly after hearing the news of Harry Dean Stanton’s passing, I revisited a piece on hipstercrite.com celebrating his 90th birthday. In the piece,”Harry Dean Stanton: Celebrating 90 Years of Awesomeness,” Lauren Modery wrote about the man and a celeb-filled event held in his honor that culminated with Stanton himself being given The Harry Dean Stanton Award.
Describing the eventual arrival of Stanton to the stage, Modery mused, “He looked 90, which was a shocking feeling since the actor kind of always looked old, even when he was 40 … I say this without opinion; it’s more of an observation of a man who I thought never aged.”
Modery hit the nail on the head and her observation stayed in my head while watching Stanton’s performance in John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky — a film that sometimes feels like a celluloid continuation of that October 23rd celebration. Even a few of the event’s guests — Ed Begley Jr., David Lynch, and singer Foster Timms make their own artistic contributions to the film.
As it begins, the title character wakes up, brushes his teeth, goes into a downward dog pose, lights up a cig, gets coffee at the local diner, buys milk from a convenience store, works on a crossword puzzle with an unidentified person via telephone, and ultimately winds up sitting at the corner of a local bar while occasionally going on grumpy tangents here and there.
Like Lucky‘s shamble, the film slowly introduces us to some of the other inhabitants of the small western town. Stanton’s interactions are often gruff but lovable in their own grumpy grandpa way. There are random moments that happen here and there: He engages in a spunky game of “kick the can” at one point. He sings with a mariachi band backing him up during a birthday fiesta. He smokes pot with a waitress (Yvonne Huff). He challenges a much younger insurance salesman (Ron Livingston) to a bar fight. He talks to a friend (David Lynch) who has lost his tortoise, President Roosevelt.
Are there huge morbid dramatic arcs? Not really. Does Lucky the atheist become a born again Christian just as he meets his fate? Hell no. Does the film become a treatise backing its title character’s worldview? Nope.
It’s safe to say that not a whole lot happens in Lucky. The plot is sparse and that is the director’s intent. It’s essentially a character study with little harmonica interludes and a couple abstract scenes thrown in for good measure. It’s reminiscent of David Lynch’s most UnLynchiest film ever, The Straight Story, a laconic film about a farmer (Richard Farnsworth) trying to patch old wounds with his brother (Stanton). Like that film, Lucky even at its most thoughtful moments, never feels like cheap sentimentality.
Known to many for his creepier roles in stuff like Shutter Island, Zodiac, and his recurring role as Twisty The Clown in American Horror Story John Carroll Lynch, like Stanton, is another guy that many casual viewers would recognize. His directorial debut is one of those movies that is unique from critique perspective. The spectre of Stanton’s recent passing hangs over the film as if it were a celluloid elegy which is almost unfair to the film itself. The visibly fragile Lucky is the visibly fragile Harry Dean Stanton. In one scene, he says, “If they could’ve, they would’ve,” between coughs after he’s reminded for the umpteenth time that his smokes will kill him.
That line, like many others in the film, sounds like something one of the writers (Stanton’s longtime friend/ personal assistant Logan Sparks) simply adapted to the film from interactions with Stanton himself. In the last scene, Lucky breaks the fourth wall, offering a Harry Dean Stanton smile before shuffling off down a desert road a moment before Foster Timms’ tribute to him, “The Man In The Moonshine” plays behind the closing credits.
In a sense, there are two ways to view the film: as a love letter to the man and his work and as a narrative feature. As a film that pays tribute to one of the great underrated actors, it excels. As a narrative feature, it’s good. It does have a couple scenes that felt stilted but they didn’t hurt the film overall.
Whereas a film like Mean Dreams, starring the late Bill Paxton seemed to be yet another example of Paxton’s skill as an actor, this film achieves more. Lucky feels like a celebration of Stanton the man housed in a well-crafted film that utilized his skill.