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Harry Dean Stanton: Finally, Sadly, Career-Topping in Lucky

Lucky 01

By Elias Savada.

Harry Dean Stanton was older than dirt when he died earlier this month. In human years, that was 91. I’m pretty sure if you placed him side by side with a mound of desert fill, they’d look the same. With an acting career that spanned 60 years and more than 200 films, he and actor-turned-director John Carroll Lynch (in an elegant, sweet, poetic debut) have gifted us a wonderful slice of Southwest American apple pie with an a la mode portrayal of a man ruminating about life’s practical purpose in and outside his daily routine.

In the enthusiastic yet unassuming script that fits its star like a well-worn glove – screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja have stated in more than a few interviews that they had Stanton in mind because Sparks is a longtime friend of the actor – the resulting curtain between actor and character becomes absolutely invisible. There’s a ton of Harry in Lucky, and it’s a priceless combination. Indeed, the film opens with “Harry Dean Stanton is…LUCKY.” What a great exit.

Lucky 03So, is the film all Harry, Harry, Harry? Nope. Plenty of other old-timers, hangers-on, and just plain and quirky folks populate this no-name speck of Heartland USA (actually shot in the desert north of Los Angeles, with a day at Cave Creek, Arizona, for the Saguaro atmosphere), a whimsical Our Town, although Lucky does seem to set the clock in motion each day, with a passing nod to Groundhog Day.

Lucky’s day begins and ends with a cigarette, with many in between. At daybreak he usually flips on his old radio to an array of popular Mexican songs, does his yoga exercises, makes some coffee, drinks some milk, and takes a leisurely stroll from his hole-in-the-wall home on the edge of town to the local diner. There he plops down at the counter every morning to schmooze with its array of regulars, including Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley) and Loretta (Yvonne Huff Lee), who serve him the morning brew as he wrestles with the daily crossword puzzle.

Other errands and gestures have their rinse-and-repeat moments, including watching his usual tv shows. At night he frequents Elaine’s, a bar queened over by its bawdy owner (Beth Grant) and her cadre of male admirers. As Lucky sips on his Bloody Rims, dour regular Howard (David Lynch) pops in with a tale of woe about President Roosevelt, a pet tortoise (destined to inherit his owner’s estate), who has schemed an escape into the wild. He might be heading for Twin Peaks.

There’s also the magnificently preserved James Darren as ladies’ man Paulie. What a fitting role for someone who was a teenage heartthrob back in the 1960s, when he was a tv and cinema regular when not singing his several hit singles. Lynch gives Darren a lovely homage to The Time Tunnel, the Irwin Allen mid-1960s sci-fi series in which he co-starred with Robert Colbert as time travelling scientists. One night, as Paulie heads off, presumably for some nearby adult entertainment, there’s a spectral aura that has a striking resemblance to the entrance of the show’s oval transportation device.

Lucky 02When Lucky has a fainting spell, he visits with his doctor (Ed Begley, Jr.), which showcases the film’s nuanced script. In this short scene, Dr. Kneedler reluctantly gives Lucky a clean bill of health, despite the patient’s smoking addiction. “All I can figure is it’s a combination of genetic good luck and you’re one tough son of a bitch.” The roasting continues, “Short of shooting you with a silver bullet or stabbing you with a wooden stake, it seems the older you get, the longer you’re going to live.”

Another heartfelt scene features Stanton’s Alien crewmate Tom Skerritt. Lucky, an old Navy man, bonds with a Marine vet, exchanging harrowing stories about World War II and the Pacific arena where they served. There’s also poignant moment that finds Lucky breaking into an impromptu Spanish song, a modest serenade for a woman he met moments earlier.

Lynch obviously was paying attention in class when he was being directed by his masters during a television and film career dating back to the mid-1990s, breaking out in the role as the devoted husband of Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson in the Coen brother’s Fargo, a salute to smalltime crooks in the frozen reaches of North Dakota. Although Lynch has etched a marvelous range of characterizations including serial killer John Wayne Gacy/Twisty the Clown (American Horror Story), presumed Zodiac Killer Arthur Leigh Allen (in David Fincher’s Zodiac), and Drew Careys transvestite sibling (The Drew Carey Show), I see a lot of folksy, laid-back Norm Gunderson in Lucky.

His behind-the-camera expertise is reflected in an crisp use of the camera, a slow reveal here, a well-constructed zoom there, a sun-kissed landscape when it fits. Director of photography Tim Suhrstedt handled the camera in one of my favorite films, 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine. Lynch is entranced with the film’s harmonica theme song, “Red River Valley.” There’s nothing showy to distract from the storytelling and the acting.

There’s a lovely sense of community in the film, of folks who have ambled along life’s highways and byways together. Like a cold beer on a hot summer’s day, Lucky‘s a lovely bit of early fall refreshment. Uplifting with a wink and a nod, with a hope that Roosevelt will return home, and that Lucky will enjoy a nice slice of long life.

It’s a damn shame that Stanton won’t be around for the accolades he’ll receive for the luckiest role of his life.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).

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