A moving and funny meditation on life, and who we are when it ends.
This is the greeting Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton), gives to the Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), the head cook in the film’s dusty, one-horse town. When Joe responds in kind, Lucky thanks him. This 89-year-old man, protagonist of director John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky (though if ever there were a film that belonged to its lead actor, this is it) is content to know that he is worth as much as anybody else is.
At the beginning of the film, Lucky’s day starts with a series of routines. He gets up and smokes a cigarette. He performs 20 minutes of yoga, with brief stops for cigarette breaks. He drinks milk and gets dressed in faded jeans, pointed boots and a cowboy’s hat leftover from a Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western. Before he begins his walk into town, he smokes another cigarette. A warbling rendition of ‘Red River Valley’, played on harmonica for the soundtrack by Stanton himself, starts up as the wind whips around Lucky’s boots.
Stanton died a couple of weeks shy of this film’s initial festival release. He’d been acting for over 50 years and has appeared in Ridley Scott’s Alien, the Wim Wenders classic Paris Texas and, more recently, in his friend David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Here, Stanton lends a meditative perspective to a character who may well have been going through the same things he was. After an abrupt fall in his kitchen, Lucky’s curt, yet kindly interactions with the town’s patrons—among them are Lynch as Howard, a man coming to terms with his pet tortoise having ‘run away’ and Beth Grant as the owner of the bar in which Lucky has his nightly bloody Maria—take on a mournful tone. When Bibi (Bertila Damas) invites him to her son’s fiesta birthday, he stares back at the spritely shop clerk with black, tiny eyes as if, for the first time, he’s peering straight into the void. He accepts the invitation. We realise, before his fall, he probably would’ve declined.
Despite its preoccupation with mortality, Lucky is a funny, wonderful film. It reaches the same kind of moody humour as Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, with Bill Murray’s performance in that film showing parallels to Stanton’s here. Lynch is the best of the supporting cast, and while his runaway pet tortoise (named ‘President Roosevelt’) is at first comical, Howard’s impassioned declaration of his love for that tortoise culminates in a moving speech about friendship.
This is largely what Lucky is made up of. Speeches and philosophical conversations about what people fear, value and hope for at different stages in their lives. It’s a film about accepting that the planet keeps turning when you’re no longer on it. It’s a film about how a staunch, nihilistic perspective on death doesn’t mean you won’t be afraid at the end. It’s a hugely entertaining film, one that’s likely to plaster a smile on your face for the rest of the week, one which has so much to offer anyone who watches it, no matter who they are or what they believe about how this weird thing called life eventually plays out.
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.
Lucky is currently playing at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova