Director: John Carroll Lynch
Stars: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Barry Shebaka Henley
One of the (many) pleasures of last year’s Twin Peaks revival was the precious scenes of Harry Dean Stanton reprising his role of Carl Rodd from 1992’s Fire Walk With Me. His involvement added little to the typically strange plot machinations, but he added a sense of homeliness to the show and was the instrument of some of its more touching moments.
The same sense of bittersweet gratefulness courses through Lucky. The kindred mood is aided by the presence of David Lynch, who appears in front of the camera here as Howard, a friend of Stanton’s eponymous Lucky, pining for his missing tortoise, President Roosevelt.
Stanton died last year aged 91. Where one door closes another one opens, or so they say. Lucky may be Stanton’s final lead performance, but it also marks a new beginning for someone else. Renowned and beloved character actor John Carroll Lynch makes his directorial debut here. It shows. Not in the sense that the film is rough or lacks confidence (it’s very well made). Rather, this is an actors’ film. The same way that Paul Newman’s directorial efforts, for instance, are actors’ films. It’s a modest and nuanced character piece. Just the kind of thing Stanton would always have shined in.
Lucky is an old man in a desert town. He has his routine. Yoga and milk in the morning. A visit to the local cafe. Crosswords and quiz shows preoccupy him. In the evening, he might sip a Bloody Mary at the local bar. He’s alone but not lonely, as he points out to his doctor (Ed Begley, Jr.) following a fall. Time is creeping up on Lucky. A flashing digital readout of “12:00” ominously precedes his collapse, while a Johnny Cash record feels like a particularly on-point piece of emotional bypass surgery soon after.
Still, this last aside, Lucky doesn’t press its themes too urgently. Indeed, there’s no urgency at all. The film moves to the pace of Stanton’s shuffle. That’s just fine. Early on, Lucky fixates on an answer in his crossword puzzle; realism. Carroll Lynch does his best to keep a sense of the real in Lucky. It’s people are regular Joes. They have their own stories, from Ron Livingston’s mustachioed lawyer to Beth Grant’s against-type old dame. People talk to one another the way people do. The screenplay adds a dusting of too-perfect to their tales, but in the main the film sees people plainly. As they are. Or as they seem to Lucky. As he points out, perception is never shared completely.
The folksiness of Lucky might not be to all tastes, but there’s a truthfulness to its sedate ease. In that sense it recalls the tone of another David Lynch piece; 1999’s The Straight Story. The two films focus on elderly characters that are treated with credible respect and occasional fond mockery (and sure, Stanton appears in both). In addition, both feature a sequence in which the lead character reminisces on WWII with a stranger. Carroll Lynch shades his a little more plainly than Lynch did – there are no swooshing planes creeping in on the soundtrack – but Stanton’s conversing with Tom Skerritt is as much of a pleasure to encounter.
Invited to a Mexican birthday party, Lucky surprises all when he starts to sing in Spanish. A Mariachi band assembles around him. The family smile on, affording him an audience. Carroll Lynch could have easily played it for schmaltz, but he doesn’t push. The moment simply is and we can add to it all we want.
Had Stanton not sadly passed, would Lucky feel like such a gift? That’s hard to say. But it does feel like a gift. His passing perhaps only underscores here what he added to American cinema, with more than 200 credits to his name. In watching it you can’t help but feel keyed in to the other defining appearances he gave us. There was always a world-weariness to Stanton, but along with it a wry craftiness; a glint in the eyes that suggested he was in on a joke you wanted to hear.
When Lucky goes to smoke a cigarette at the bar, Beth Grant’s Elaine asks him to go outside. “One of these days I’m just gonna light up!” Lucky says to her. Stanton lit up for years and we all got to see it.
Breezy, lightly philosophical, slightly melancholic, imperfect but impactful… Lucky is as fitting a swan song for Stanton as we could’ve asked for. A gentle giant, like the man himself. It is also a fine first film for John Carroll Lynch, one that bodes well for future endeavours. If this is the scale that suits him, then more power to him.