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A Modest Film, But 'Lucky' Still Packs a Wallop

Magnolia Pictures

Lucky starts out looking like one of those tedious clichés about how the West is lonely, barren and abandoned, and our story is just oh-so-masculine sensitive. But within a few minutes the film is far more than that. Lucky himself is played by Harry Dean Stanton. He’s a quirky actor who has 199 movie credits. He’s something of an eccentric legend with a bit of a cult following, but when Stanton is in the right kind of picture with a good director, he’s simply radiant. Look at Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas or any of the films Stanton has made with David Lynch. He does so little, yet manages to find a depth that is always a surprise.

Lucky the movie doesn’t have much of a story. As the character, Lucky, the 90-year-old Stanton wanders around a grim little town in the west. Hills rise in the background; there’s a saguaro forest nearby, but Lucky mostly walks down a dreary street past empty, boarded up one-story buildings on his way to a small café. The people there and in the rest of the town generally treat him kindly. In the café, Lucky sits alone and has coffee; he banters with the waitress and the cook.

Sometimes he drinks at a bar. He wrangles with other regulars, sometimes gets unsettled or angry, tries to smoke until the waitress threatens to kick him out. The film meditates on age and death, and Stanton in fact died just a month ago. He looks gaunt in the film. Director John Carroll Lynch shows Lucky in his underwear a good bit of the time, as he does chores around his home. He exercises, until one day for no discoverable reason, he falls. He goes to the doctor (Ed Begley, Jr) who says he won’t even tell Lucky to stop smoking, because that might kill him.

Credit Magnolia Pictures

And there are two scenes with some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen in a movie, scenes that break through the barrier that separates film from audience or fiction from actuality. Loretta the waitress (Yvonne Huff) comes to visit to check on Lucky. They’re awkward to each other; Lucky’s softly unfriendly, but Yvonne is persistent. Then Lucky looks at her and tells her a secret. “I’m scared,” he says and to see that confession play out through Stanton’s stiffness is like a miracle. Seconds later, they hug, and it really is a transcendent moment. The actors create a depth of connection between two fictional characters that you seldom see on screen.

A bit later, in the café, a World War II veteran, a marine, sits at the counter. He’s played by Tom Skerritt, who’s now 84. Lucky and Fred talk about the war – Stanton himself was a cook in the navy and Lucky talks about it. And again, it’s hard to believe that a moment in film can have such a grasp of reality. At yet another point in the movie, Stanton sings, in Spanish, at a birthday party. It glues you to the film.

Credit Magnolia Pictures

Lucky is a first film. Director John Carroll Lynch has never made a feature before, although he’s an actor with a lot of experience. The two screenwriters, Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja have done nothing with this level of awareness or sensitivity. Lucky is utterly simple. Stanton carries the film in his hollow-cheeked face, faraway eyes, and his unruly hair matted under a straw cowboy hat that looks as old as Stanton himself. The movie is a tribute to Stanton, and it gives itself over to him. The picture also honors a bunch of older movie actors, like Skerritt and Begley; David Lynch has a significant role, even though he’s not a terrific actor. The much younger Yvonne Huff is a revelation.

Near the end of the film, Stanton looks right at the lens of the camera and smiles. It makes you feel grateful for him and for such a marvelous film.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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