Review: 'Lucky' is a moving swan song for the late, great Harry Dean Stanton

Harry Dean Stanton’s final film is haunting, triumphant, and a fitting end to a long career.

Harry Dean Stanton’s final film is haunting, triumphant, and a fitting end to a long career. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Lucky was not intended to be Harry Dean Stanton’s final film.

The 91-year-old actor’s death last month turned his self-described spiritual journey into the swan song of an illustrious movie career. It should come as no surprise that the picture—already heavy with themes of isolation and death—now carries an added weight. Yet Lucky ultimately feels less like an elegy than it does a celebration of one man’s life.

While there are some notable differences between Lucky and Stanton (Lucky is not an actor a la The Hero), this is a deeply personal tale. Friends Drago Sumonja and Logan Sparks co-wrote the movie for Stanton, lifting minor proclivities and his broader worldview, and blurring the line of what is and isn’t real.

Lucky is a creature of habit. He wakes up every morning, smokes a cigarette, does some yoga, and strolls through town to visit his usual haunts. He does the crossword, watches his programs, and has a Bloody Maria (tequila instead of vodka) at the local watering hole. It’s a rhythmic life, lived alone—but the straight-shooting old man insists that it doesn’t feel lonely.

When the inexplicably healthy nonagenarian falls down in his kitchen out of the blue, he begins thinking about his own mortality.

Like the title character, Lucky moves along at a measured pace. This is not the kind of movie that hinges on dramatic swings or a climactic gut-punch. Instead it documents Lucky from a short distance, revealing little of the 90 previous years, and asks us to draw our own conclusions about both the character in the present and the man playing him.

Some may find the film as a whole to be slow or boring, though it’d be hard to argue with Stanton’s magnetism in it. Lucky finds a groove in the haze between fiction and reality, and our curiosity regarding Stanton keeps interest piqued. He’s curmudgeonly but lovable, self-assured even in a confusing time, and despite the appearance of fragility, we get the sense that Stanton, somehow, is still all there.

Lucky’s irreligious viewpoints on life and death fuel an exploration of territory left mostly untouched by American movies. Typically we’d see a brush with the great unknown rattling firmly held beliefs of eternal nothingness, but Lucky’s accident only emboldens him. He begins saying yes to those reaching out to him: speaking with an insurance salesman he dislikes, attending a child’s birthday party, even breaking into song unexpectedly. It’s the kind of mindset where nothing matters, and because of that, everything matters. Staunch atheism in a man Lucky’s age is fascinating whether or not your beliefs align.

As the movie winds to a close, it’s hard not to think of Stanton’s death. We’ll never know what impact the movie would have had if he’d still been alive at its release, but as it stands now, the closing scene provides one of the most haunting, triumphant, and just outright beautiful shots in film history. It’s a fitting end to a long career and an even longer life.

Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston
Director: John Carroll Lynch
Rated: Unrated
Theater: Now playing, Edina Cinema