Harry Dean Stanton died earlier this month at age 91. This week sees the release of his new movie, “Lucky,” in which he plays a 90-year-old contemplating his own mortality. It’s a peculiar instance of life imitating art (or is it the other way around?) that feels less like a coincidence than the punchline to a bizarre, cosmic joke — as if fiction had posed some deep questions about existence and mortality that only a cold, hard slap of reality could answer.
But if “Lucky” is inevitably sadder to watch now than it was six months ago, when it premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, it is also bracingly devoid of cynicism or cruelty. Directed by John Carroll Lynch, himself an exceptional character actor in pictures like “Zodiac” and “The Founder,” the movie is an insistently low-key and dryly funny valentine to Stanton’s life and career, elements from which the screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja have knowingly folded into the titular craggy-faced curmudgeon Stanton plays.
A hardened atheist, a U.S. Navy veteran and a longtime resident of his remote desert town, Lucky is, above all, a creature of habit. After starting each morning with an intensive yoga regimen, he puts on a plaid shirt, boots and a cowboy hat and heads to a nearby diner for a cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle. (The friendly proprietor is played by Barry Shabaka Henley, one of a dozen or so first-rate character actors on tap here.) In the afternoon there are errands to run, cigarettes to buy, old TV game shows to watch and a few mildly surprising detours to pursue, followed by a Bloody Mary at a bar whose staff and clientele Lucky knows well enough to bicker with long into the night.
There’s a moment early on when Lucky suddenly collapses at home, and you dread the beginnings of a plot being set in motion — one that, in keeping with the sentimental tendencies of other movies that superficially resemble this one, might end with our hero in a hospital room, possibly with a teary-eyed moppet at his bedside. Happily, “Lucky” sidesteps those clichés. The reason for his fall is never explained, and his doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) proclaims him to be in unreasonably good health. “You’re one tough son of a bitch,” he says, conceding that at this point, even giving up smoking would probably do Lucky more harm than good.
The end will come for him eventually, of course, although whether it does so in the course of this movie’s fleet 88 minutes, I will leave for you to discover. At times you can sense the writers clearing their throats to usher in the looming specter of death, as when Lucky listens to an insurance salesman (a terrific Ron Livingston) talk about a life-threatening experience, or a Marine veteran (Tom Skerritt) sharing a haunting wartime memory. Yet the movie doesn’t milk these beautifully played moments for excessive pathos. More often than not, it simply takes the measure of Stanton’s reaction — a grunt, a curse or a wordless stare — and quietly moves on.
Lucky, who doesn’t believe in life after death, isn’t about to change his stance anytime soon, and “Lucky” isn’t particularly interested in either affirming or denying his point of view. Instead the movie nurtures a quiet sense of mystery, content in the knowledge that neither an upbeat mind-set nor a cruel, nihilistic one can really capture the full experience of life as it’s lived.
In much the same way, Lucky’s grouchy demeanor doesn’t begin to explain the deep affection the rest of the town feels for him. And as brusque and intractable as he may be, he remains remarkably receptive to everyday compassion. When a waitress (Yvonne Huff) stops by his house to check up on him after his fall, they wind up smoking a joint and watching Liberace on TV — a lovely, wistful interlude that ends with Lucky’s difficult admission that he’s scared of what’s still to come.
The better one knows Stanton’s life and his movies, the more the long silences and gently meandering rhythms of “Lucky” resonate. When he later shows up at a friend’s fiesta, the filmmakers can’t resist showcasing their actor’s musical chops by having him croon “Volver, Volver.” There’s an earlier moment in the diner when Lucky acknowledges that, among other things, he’s never married or fathered any children (that he’s aware of), and Stanton delivers those gruff, terse responses with such delicacy of feeling that the line separating the character from the actor seems to evaporate.
At times the film’s eccentric small-town vibe can’t help but bring to mind a dustier, less malevolent version of “Twin Peaks,” the show whose recent resurgence handed Stanton one of his other final screen roles. Just to drive home the comparison, David Lynch himself (no relation to the movie’s director) turns up in the most robust and memorable of the movie’s supporting performances, playing an earnest local who is agitated over the loss of his pet tortoise. The goofiness of that role makes it sound tailor-made for Lynch, and so it is, though mere self-parody alone couldn’t begin to account for the emotional force he brings to a simple three-word line: “He affected me.”
Often framing Stanton against a rugged desert landscape, walking slowly but purposefully toward his next destination, John Carroll Lynch pays continual homage to the actor’s majestic performance in Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas.” That 1984 masterpiece features one of Stanton’s few leading roles besides this one, and it too discovered an indelible, irreducible authenticity in every crevice of its actor’s beautifully weathered visage. When a character in “Lucky” makes reference to the soul, Stanton savagely retorts that there’s no such thing, unaware — or perhaps fully, entirely aware — that his own presence could serve as such a magnificent contradiction.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles