“Lucky” begins with series of shots of the New Mexico desert: broken-backed hills, cacti reaching for the sky. It locates a tortoise crawling on the ground. This is President Roosevelt, whose predicament we’ll learn about in due course. Then it settles on a human equivalent of that tortoise: the title character, Lucky, played by then-89-year old Harry Dean Stanton, who died mere weeks before this film’s commercial release.
Over the course of the next 90 minutes, we spend nearly every moment in the company of Lucky. Lucky is a long-retired World War II veteran who has never been married and never had kids. He has friends but is often brusque and impatient with them. Like most people, he has a routine, and like many older people, the routine defines him—gives shape to his days.
He walks around town and stops in the local coffee shop, where he talks to the head cook (Barry Shabaka Henley) and a particular waitress, Loretta (Yvonne Huff), who takes an almost daughterly interest in his well being to the point of stopping by Lucky’s tiny home to inquire about his health and share her stash of weed. Lucky goes to his favorite bar and drinks and talks to the owner Elaine (Beth Grant) and her husband Paulie (James Darren, of TV’s “T.J. Hooker” and several “Gidget” films). They argue amongst themselves and with other patrons about philosophy, morality, religion, game shows, etc. We see a lot of Lucky at home, often in his baggy underwear, smoking cigarettes (he has a pack-a-day habit, has since he was a teenager) and doing yoga exercises.
The movie is filled with frank talk about fundamental subjects. This is often framed as banter, or enclosed within routine events such as a random conversation on a small town street trip or a trip to a doctor’s office (Ed Begley, Jr. plays Lucky’s physician—what a treasure trove of actors this film is.). But the story’s deeper meanings reside in its images of Harry Dean Stanton moving at a tortoise’s pace through a series of sun-drenched, Western-styled, widescreen panoramas (the soundtrack often playing a solo harmonica version of “Red River Valley” performed by Stanton himself), or making his way from the entrance of his favorite coffee shop or bar to take his customary seat (when he sees someone else sitting in it, it throws him for a loop).
This movie is about death, of course, and fear of death, and health, and loneliness. It’s about the choices not made and the roads not taken: Lucky has a lot of regrets, but you often have to deduce what they are, because he’s the kind of crabby old eccentric who’d rather get into debates with people than just talk to them. (Other people talk more openly than he does, often as a means of trying to get him to open up and be vulnerable, which is really not his style.) Much is made of Lucky’s atheism, which complicates his defiant attitude towards the inevitable approach of death. “Friendship is essential to the soul,” Paulie tells him at the bar. “It doesn’t exist,” Lucky replies, an edge in his voice.
“Friendship?” Paulie clarifies.
“The soul!” Lucky yells.
The movie is also about friendship and loyalty, especially as emphasized in Lucky’s conversations with his best friend Howard, played by David Lynch as a dandy in a cream-colored suit, white fedora and red ascot. Howard is distressed about the disappearance of Theodore Roosevelt, his beloved, ancient tortoise (call the animal a turtle at your peril). Lynch directed Stanton in many projects, including the recent “Twin Peaks: The Return,” which cast the actor as a weathered icon of decency, a trailer park manager who offers to give a tenant a break on the rent so he won’t have to keep selling his blood to make payments, and who cradles a dying boy and watches his soul rise to heaven. There’s an extra-dramatic thrill to watching these two, who have known each other for at least thirty years, play old friends. Lynch holds his own: whether he’s as good an actor as Stanton or simply a good friend to him is a moot point, because either way, the love and mutual respect is present in every moment.
Lucky is the kind of guy whose capacity to make new friends either went dormant or switched off at a certain point, so he’s as surprised as anybody when he finds himself opening up to younger people, including Loretta, who has issues of her own, and a young insurance agent played by Ron Livingston, whom Lucky despises immediately but who opens up suddenly, almost desperately, like a drowning man begging for someone to pull him from the water.
The movie was written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, and directed by longtime actor turned first-time filmmaker John Carroll Lynch (of “Fargo,” “Zodiac” and other films too numerous to mention—he’s another Stanton in the making). I’ve seen a lot of movies that try to be “Lucky”—movies about eccentric people in a small town or neighborhood who hang out in bars and coffee shops and have conversations—but very few that have this film’s elegant shape, its sense of when to hang back and listen and when to let the camera tell the story and when to end a thought and move on to the next one.
It’s the humblest deep movie of recent years, a work in the same vein as American marginalia like “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Trees Lounge,” but with its own rhythm and color, its own emotional temperature, its own reasons for revealing and concealing things. There’s a long scene of Lucky smoking cigarettes at night and thinking while Johnny Cash’s “I See a Darkness”—one of many late-career classics that had the singer facing the certainty of his own death—that’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen. The sandblasted terrain of Stanton’s face in this scene constitutes a movie within a movie, a life revealed in contemplation. I felt that way before Stanton left us. I feel it even more keenly now.