Harry Dean Stanton, who died at the age of 91 in last September, was always interesting to watch throughout his long, illustrious acting career spanning six decades. Since I came to notice this veteran character actor for the first time via his supporting performance in “Wild at Heart” (1990), I encountered his many other fine performances through various movies including “Alien” (1979), “Escape from New York” (1981), “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), “The Straight Story” (1999), and, of course, “Paris, Texas” (1984), and these performances of his surely confirmed to me what my late friend/mentor Roger Ebert said about him: “No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.”
And that is why it is often sad and poignant to watch Stanton in “Lucky”, a small but precious character drama film which was released in US not long before his death. In what will be remembered as one of his best performances, he humbly and effortlessly strolls around humor and pathos as presenting a plain but vivid human character to remember, and his sublime acting reminds us again of what a treasure he was to us for many years.
In the movie, Stanton plays an old man named Lucky, who lives alone in a small, remote desert town. During the opening scene, we see how Lucky begins another day of his mundane daily life at his home, and then we observe his daily routine mainly revolving around a few places in the town. In the morning, he usually drops by a local diner for coffee, and the diner owner always greets Lucky with jokingly saying “You’re nothing”. After spending most of his daytime on crossword puzzle or TV, he goes to a local bar in the evening, and the bar is always populated with people who have known him for a long time.
And then a minor incident happens to Lucky in the next morning. He suddenly faints, so he later goes to his doctor, but the doctor assures to him that there is nothing particularly wrong in his body, which has been surely getting older day by day but has also been quite healthy despite his current age. A little amused about his patient’s rather remarkable health, the doctor makes a humorous comment on Lucky’s certain unhealthy habit, and that is one of small funny moments in the movie.
Although he continues his daily life as before, Lucky cannot help but aware of the possibility of death, and he often finds himself being reflective about his life. When he calls a friend and then reminisces about one particular childhood memory, the camera merely looks at Stanton’s face, but, thanks to Stanton’s subtle acting, that is more enough for us to sense and feel the emotions stirred behind his character’s phlegmatic façade.
Now some of you may expect a dramatic plot turn to come later, but the screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja simply sticks to its leisurely narrative pacing as continuing to dole out lovely individual moments generated around Lucky. We are tickled by a silly bar scene involved with a lawyer hired by one of Lucky’s friends, and then we are more amused by how this scene is eventually developed into an unexpectedly surreal moment. When Lucky later meets the lawyer again, we get another moment for laughs as expected, but then it turns out to be a little more serious than expected as he and Lucky come to have a brief conversation on life and death.
And there is a wonderful scene where Lucky has a short talk with an old guy who happens to stop by the diner. Recognizing that the guy fought in the World War II, Lucky shares his memory of the war with him, and the guy tells Lucky what he experienced during the war. As calmly observing their conversation, the movie conveys well to us their sincere interactions on the screen, and we are accordingly touched a lot by their momentary but meaningful bond.
These moments and other good moments in the film are deftly handled by first-time director John Carroll Lynch, a veteran actor who has been mainly known for his supporting turns in “Fargo” (1996) and “Zodiac” (2007). He did an exemplar job of establishing realistic mood and background for story and characters, and he also assembled a group of reliable performers around Stanton. As the diner owner, Barry Shabaka Henley, whom I noticed for the first time through his small but substantial supporting roles in “The Terminal” (2004) and “Collateral” (2004), is constantly amusing in his scenes, and Tom Skerritt, Ed Begley Jr., Ron Livingston, James Darren, Beth Grant, and Yvonne Huff are also fine in their respective supporting roles. In case of David Lynch, who has recently been prominent again thanks to the long-awaited return of his acclaimed TV series “Twin Peaks”, he is alternatively quirky and sincere in his offbeat supporting role, and his scenes with Stanton are certainly enhanced by a long history of collaboration between them, which was started with “Wild at Heart”.
While it is definitely one of overlooked gems of 2017, “Lucky” is a haunting showcase of Stanton’s undeniable presence and talent, and it made me reflect more on how steady and tenacious he was during recent years. Even after he passed 80, he kept working as usual, and I and many others were delighted to see him appearing in several recent films including “The Avengers” (2012) and “The Last Stand” (2013). Now he is gone forever, but he leaves behind many good performances to be appreciated at least, and his superlative achievement in “Lucky” deserves to be around the top of the list.