Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there,
doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring.
What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
Director John Carroll Lynch’s film could be seen as a final tribute to its star, Harry Dean Stanton, this being the 91-year-old actor’s last film before dying this past September. Scriptwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja had the actor in mind when they wrote their insightful script.
Usually serving as a memorable character actor (in over 100 movies and 50 TV episodes), Mr. Stanton’s desert wandering father was the central character in 1984’s Paris, Texas, a film I remember well as having one of the most heart-wrenching endings of any film that I have seen. In Lucky the aged actor returns to the Southwest where his character lives at the edge of a small bedraggled-looking village, one of the regulars at the local diner and bar.
Lucky, a WW 2 Navy vet, is an avowed atheist who would never think of entering the church he walks by every morning after rising and shaving, exercising, smoking a cigarette, and then going to the village for breakfast (the only food in his otherwise empty refrigerator are three cartons of milk). After shopping and chatting at the Mexican grocery store, he returns home and sits watching TV game shows. Nights he drops in at the bar owned by Elaine (Beth Grant) and her husband Paulie (James Darren).
This being primarily a character study, not much happens, compared to an adventure or superhero film. Lucky is a man of strong likes and dislikes, so he takes an immediate dislike to an insurance agent (Ron Livingston) talking with his friend in the bar. I think this was Howard, the friend who mourns and speculates about his beloved pet tortoise, “President Roosevelt,” that has crawled off into the desert. Throughout the film the man will lament the loss of his pet, asserting, “There are some things in this world that are bigger than all of us… and a tortoise is one of ’em!” He also gets irritated when Lucky or others refer to the pet as “a turtle,” continually reminding the bar regulars that Roosevelt is a tortoise! Late in the film Howard accepts the choice the creature has made. Keep your eyes open, because you will catch one more glimpse of the errant tortoise. And take note of the direction in which it is heading.
It is such details as the above that makes this slow-paced film such delightful viewing. There are many other such scenes, such as when Lucky tells of his boyhood days when he owned a BB-gun that would not shoot straight so that he accidentally hit the mockingbird he had intended only to startle. “Saddest thing,” he comments.
Especially revealing of character is the scene in which Lucky, having accepted the grocery store proprietor’s (Bertila Damas) invitation to her son’s tenth birthday party, enjoys the food and the revelry of the children and adults. The family is Mexican-American, so there is a small mariachi band. (This is probably a tribute to the actor’s highly praised “The Harry Dean Stanton Band” which has toured internationally, playing this lively brand of music.) Lucky surprises everyone by serenading the gathering, his song one that the band apparently knows, because they join in with him, and soon everyone is lustily singing along. This high point in the film changed my opinion of Lucky from that of a rather listless (I almost typed “useless”) old taker to that of a giver, able even when death is very much upon his mind, to enrich the lives of others.
Lucky is also the imparter of hard-won wisdom, the life-long bachelor telling his doctor, whom he visits after a fall at home, “There’s a difference between lonely and being alone.” To the insurance agent, the morning after Lucky had challenged him to a fight, he says when the man joins him at his breakfast table and tries to converse with him, “The only thing worse than awkward silence: small talk.” However, as the man opens up more about his personal life and displays a vulnerability, Lucky responds to him with warmth.
And, contemplating his impending oblivion, Lucky agrees with Ecclesiastes and James (and Job), “We come here, and we go out alone.” Earlier, he had admitted to Loretta (Yvonne Huff) concerning death, “I’m scared.” Lucky early in the film claims that there is no “soul,” but by the end he displays a sensitivity that belies this.
Other than a tombstone, there will be no monuments to this man whom the world regards as unimportant, so the Ecclesiastes passage could apply to Lucky, once his small circle of friends also die. But I would not want to say his life was a “vanity.” I came to like him so much that I wish he could affirm what the James says in the verse following his gloomy statement. Lucky is a guy with whom it might be fun sitting down with at the Messianic banquet table—though the conversation better be more than “small talk.” He seems far preferable a dinner companion than a few certain church members I have known.
Lucky is the first feature directed by actor John Carroll Lynch: let’s hope the favorable critical reaction to this well-made film will help him advance further as a director.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the December issue of Visual Parables.