by Charles Nash

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 29, 2017

Harry Dean Stanton stars in 'Lucky'
Harry Dean Stanton stars in 'Lucky'  

When I saw "Lucky" a few weeks ago, Harry Dean Stanton was still alive. Considering the man was 91 years old, I figured it would be one of the last projects he'd ever star in, and the picture itself serves as a swan song for his astonishing career that spanned decades. Still, in no way did that prepare me for the heartache I felt upon hearing he passed away.

"Lucky" is a lovely film, but now it's taken on an even deeper emotional resonance; it's become a eulogy to one of the greatest character actors of our time.

The film is set in a small, southern desert town. Stanton plays the titular protagonist, who follows the same routine every day. He gets up, exercises, stops by the local diner, picks up cigarettes from the convenience store, and caps it all off with a Bloody Mary at the bar. Yet, through his gruff persona and outspokenly atheist worldviews, it's clear that Lucky is worn out by what he feels to be a seemingly mundane existence.

That is, until he takes a fall one morning in the midst of his morning workout. His doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) informs him that, despite the incident, he's in surprisingly good health, especially for someone who's smoked a pack a day for his entire adult life. Despite this prognosis, Lucky's repressed feelings begin boiling to the surface, eventually cracking through his shell as he begins to see the world in a more affably gracious light.

At a glance, this may seem like cookie-cutter material, but "Lucky" isn't a film prioritized with plot. It's more of a meditation on life itself, and while coping with the inevitable concept of mortality is one of the film's major themes, it maintains a breezy quality that makes Lucky's transformation credibly heartwarming.

This is largely in part to John Carroll Lynch, another prolific character actor who, with this graceful directorial debut, strikes just the right tone in balancing out humor with pathos. Known primarily as Frances McDormand's loving husband in "Fargo" and the startling prime suspect in "Zodiac," Lynch proves he's got just as many chops behind the camera as he does in front of it. He's a master of mood and setting; each scene is a vignette set against a sunny exterior that, despite its isolated locale, brims with history and life.

As much as "Lucky" is a showcase for Stanton, the film is rife with colorful supporting players, such as Beth Grant, James Darren and Barry Shabaka Henley. David Lynch is a standout as a bar regular whose pet tortoise, President Roosevelt, has gone missing, playing him as if he's a long-lost brother of Gordon Cole from "Twin Peaks." Perhaps the most dramatically compelling scene, though, consists of Lucky conversing with an ex-marine (Tom Skerritt) over a cup of coffee, mirroring Stanton's own memories and perspectives as a World War II veteran himself.

Not since Wim Wenders' masterpiece "Paris, Texas" had Stanton been cast as a lead, and, as expected, he's a revelation here. Few actors are able to convey such complex emotions merely through a look in their eyes, but every gesture Stanton makes speaks a thousand words. There's also a beautiful, deeply moving sequence in which Stanton sings a Spanish mom melody at a celebratory gathering, reminding us of his musical prowess in addition to being such an idiosyncratic figure in American film.

The final images of this film, in which Stanton nearly breaks the fourth wall, have lingered with me ever since the credits rolled, and I can't help but get a bit teary-eyed whenever they pop into my mind. As a tribute to one of the greats, few cinematic send-offs are as poignant, or fitting, than this wonderful gem.