LUCKY is what you’ll be if you spend 88 minutes with this 2017 agate, at once hard and smooth, shiny and opaque, a loving tone poem swan song to Harry Dean Stanton, who shuffled on to whatever lies next seven months after the film was released, a well-ripened 91.
Directed by another great, offbeat character actor, John Carroll Lynch, written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja specifically for their friend Harry, co-starring some of his pals, like director David Lynch (no relation to John Carroll) and Ed Begley, Jr.
“Stanton’s Last Stand”, one wag noted with wry affection, does double duty, honoring both postings. First, most obviously, is as a warts, wrinkles & whiskey salud to the wire-thin, profane & poetic Kentucky boy who lasted six decades in & around various venues of show business, defiantly making homeliness hopeful while shading seediness with need. The screenplay works in real stories from the actor’s past (service at Okinawa, the sad tale of the mockingbird) as Lucky rambles around his New Mexico desert burg, swapping b.s. with bemused pals, smoking like there’s no tomorrow, marking time as it runs out on him. *
Second, with the purely fictional side of the story, it’s a deceptively spare, achingly deep meditation on late-term aging, loneliness and companionship, longing and acceptance, regret and rumination, finally a call to make peace with the inevitable harvest home.
Among Lucky’s formidable, forgiving discussion group, there is a graceful welcome-back role for James Darren, looking great at 80, topping off his own six-decade career in relaxed style, and a finely tuned cameo from Tom Skerritt, given a quiet reminiscence riff of a WW2 memory that juxtaposes a flash of beauty emerging out of a welter of misery.
The soundtrack makes marvelously effective placement of songs, including the great “I See A Darkness”, a heart-punch from Johnny Cash and the elegiac “The Man In The Moonshine”, written and performed by Foster Timms, with Stanton specifically in mind. Best is a surprise rendition by Lucky/Harry, in Spanish, of “Volver, Volver”, a classic from Vicente Fernández.
The only weaknesses are David Lynch’s too-obvious line readings (the writing works, he’s sincere but flat) and Beth Grant’s abrasive character (here the script hits some coarse wrong notes). Then, what’s up with that rock music segment, outside the bar, with Stanton and Darren? It’s meant to go somewhere, a dream of some kind, but where and what exactly are a mystery.
With Ron Livingstone, Barry Shebaka Henley, Yvonne Huff. Strong reviews could only do so much, as box-office came to a whispered $955,925. This finder is a keeper. It’s a bit of a surprise that the Oscar folks didn’t see fit to nominate Stanton: you’d think it would be a valedictory shoo-in nod, on the order of Richard Farnsworth’s The Straight Story or Bruce Dern’s Nebraska. His work here is as absent of artifice as a desert arroyo. Honesty defined.
The final shot is priceless: three ‘old men’—a battered Saguaro cactus, ‘Pres. Roosevelt’ the renegade tortoise and Lucky, literally going “over the hill”. Lucky Harry will make your day.
* Harry Dean’s 204 acting credits range from bit parts in epics to rare leads in indie faves. Look fast and you can spot him in Pork Chop Hill and How The West Was Won—fans of the giant western always get a smile seeing him lounging at the train station with fellow vermin Rodolfo Acosta and Jack Lambert, part of Eli Wallach’s railroad-robbing gang. In 1967 his bits added flavor to both In The Heat Of The Night and Cool Hand Luke. His pathetic Homer Van Meter was one of the folksy gunsels backing fellow rangy icon Warren Oates in Dillinger. Love his cameo in Red Dawn, bellowing “Avenge me!” Critics and tag-along Stantonians always rote-rave over Paris, Texas (snoring, loudly) and Repo Man (fun), but I’d give 1st Prize for his magnificent scuzzball dog-napper in 1980s unsung The Black Marble. R.I.P., Lucky.