When I watched Lucky, its star, Harry Dean Stanton, was still alive. Now that I’m sitting down to write about it, he is no longer amongst us. This is worth mentioning due to the fact that this, his final film, is thematically rooted in the experiences of someone well beyond the age where death is only a passing concern. Simply seeing Stanton’s beautiful, craggy face on screen conjures thoughts on mortality in the mind of even the most passive viewer. I remember thinking “this guy is either going to die today or live to be 120,” and frankly, my money was on the latter. The weeks since have proven my prediction wrong — Harry Dean Stanton is very much a mortal — but even so, his immortality has been obtained, and Lucky deserves to be placed alongside Bowie’s Blackstar as one of those rare, prescient creations balancing on the precipice of existence itself which help to soften the blow of humanity’s common fate without cheapening its urgency.
Plus, David Lynch gives a monologue about his pet tortoise that will make you laugh so hard you’ll forget about the way it wrenches your heart. You want that in your life, I promise you.
Our titular character begins his day with a routine that would prove nigh impossible for men twenty years his junior. A few calisthenics exercises, a couple of smokes, and a walk down to the diner where he has his coffee, his breakfast, and a few more smokes. On the way back home to watch his favorite game shows, Lucky stops off to yell expletives at an anonymous target. A trip down to the bar results in a buzz and an argument about being permitted to smoke indoors. Then it’s off to bed so he can get up and do it again.
On a plot level, that’s pretty much the whole shebang.
Lucky could best be described as a hangout movie, and I mean that as the highest of compliments. Movies like this are typically hit and miss for me, and it’s hard for me to determine what factors put it into my ‘keepers’ pile (I’m a strict 50/50 on Jim Jarmusch’s entire filmography). With Lucky, I presume it’s the powerful combination of cast and thematic relatability which does it for me. I may not be old, but it’s hard not to think about mortality; not to think about legacy; not to wonder if life is less colorful than it should be — and if so, if it’s from my own doing. Watching Lucky, who is indeed quite fortunate, at least in terms of physical durability, as he lives life on his own terms is to ride a wave of both admiration and pity. On the one hand, this man has reached an impossibly advanced age – a goal which all who thirst for life share. On the other hand, he’s such a goddamn curmudgeon that when his doctor (played with hilarious vigor by Ed Begley Jr.) can’t find a single malady to treat, he takes it as bad news. Lucky admonishes a disliked acquaintance for attempting small talk. He’d much rather enjoy an uncomfortable silence.
Lucky’s best friend Howard (David Lynch, a god who walks the earth), seems to be the only person with whom he has found a close bond. There’s a suggestion that they may be very old friends, just as the actors are* in real life, but the film posits them as men facing the same quandary: learning that the world is bigger than them, and that the world, relatively speaking, is still quite small. Ever since his pet tortoise “President Roosevelt” ran away, Howard has found himself wondering whether his short time with his companion even registered in its reptilian mind. Tortoises can live for centuries (“he out lived two wives,” exclaims Howard). Lucky, however, seems to feel more like the tortoise. Having lived so many years and having seen so many assumed permanencies grow transient, he’s grown accustomed to being his own anchor.
The thing is, I bet President Roosevelt does love Howard, and I bet Lucky does love life.
But that’s me. The beauty of this film is that so much can be taken from it, dependent entirely upon the viewer. In fact, I can’t wait to see it again in a new context afforded to it by Stanton’s passing.
Lucky also marks the directorial debut of John Carroll Lynch. If you don’t know his name, you certainly know his face. One could assert that he’s been in every movie ever and find themselves reasonably close to the truth. And what a debut it is! Lynch has clearly used acting experience to inform his directing style. He doesn’t rely on overt quirkiness, and given the material, this is a tricky line to walk. But it’s clear that Lynch trusts his performers to find this balance, and they do so across the board. Visually there is no reliance on aggressive directorial presence. Instead, Lynch’s lens shows a maturity that so many first time directors can’t help but undercut. There’s no ego here, and it gives the film a cool confidence which allows for such a joyful exploration of potentially morose material. I, for one, am excited to see what he does next.
If one could call a death fortuitous – and one most certainly cannot – the timing of Harry Dean Stanton’s passing is sure to fill a few extra seats, as it should. Even though Lucky is not about Stanton in the literal sense, it captures the essence of what he represented to so many of his fans: the ability to move forward toward an unavoidable fate without fear or ignorance.
*not ‘were.’ My deceased friends are still my friends.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.