Mark Reviews Movies

Lucky (2017)

LUCKY (2017)

3.5 Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Carroll Lynch

Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt, Beth Grant, James Darren, Barry Shabaka Henley, Yvonne Huff, Hugo Armstrong, Bertila Damas, Ana Mercedes

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:28

Release Date: 9/29/17 (limited); 10/6/17 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 5, 2017

Every day, the man—always wearing the same outfit of jeans, boots, a checkered shirt, and a cowboy hat—walks down a desert highway, from his small home to a small, nearby town. Before that, he wakes up, lights a cigarette, does his morning exercises, and makes a pot of coffee. In town, he has his regular stops: a local bar, where he can drink and share stories with the regulars, and the convenience store, where he stocks up on a carton of milk for the next day. In the evening, it's back home, to watch his game shows, to call up his buddy about whatever random thoughts have come into his head, and to go back to bed, so that he can start the whole process over in the morning.

They call him "Lucky," although nobody knows why and no one questions the nickname. It might as well be the man's name, as far as the locals are concerned. He's a staple of this place—his gaunt frame adding some character to the shopfronts as he walks down the sidewalk, his greeting of "You're nothing" being met with a smile, his face hovering in the corner seat at the bar, his ears listening to stories with his B.S. filter constantly at work, his voice offering advice, whether or not anyone wants to hear it. Most of the people want to hear it, because Lucky is the sort of man who doesn't speak that much or that often, but when he does, there's a reason for it.

Anyone who has spent any time in a dive bar will have seen someone like Lucky. He can blend into the wall or command the room, depending on his mood, which is usually quiet and cantankerous—although sometimes the cantankerous part needs to be sated more than usual. He still reflexively reaches for his pack of smokes while sitting at the bar, even though smoking has been banned from the place for years now. One of these days, Lucky promises, he's going to light one of those suckers anyway. Then he puts the pack away. That's another fight for another day. At least he still has something about which to fight.

The details of Lucky are a minor wonder of keen observation. One wonders where screenwriters Drago Sumonja and Logan Sparks got the idea for the character, but also, one knows that there's a guy like Lucky sitting at some bar pretty much anywhere in the country right now. It's not difficult to find someone like Lucky, but the difficult task is to make the character's life—full of routine and stories and walking and sitting in contemplative silence—into a story. It would be even harder to turn it into a good story—one that says more about Lucky than just his mere existence, but not so much that the story's aims get into the sort of highfalutin philosophical ramblings at which Lucky would scoff.

This is a fine balance, but it's one that's handled with precision by the screenwriters and director John Carroll Lynch, the prolific character actor making his directorial debut (a film that, perhaps, only a character actor could make, considering how it deals almost exclusively with the sort of characters such actors play). The film has some things to say—about how life becomes a series of routines without our noticing, how many people in this world we'd probably like knowing if we just made the effort to know them, and, on the extreme end of thematic import, how we deal with inevitability of death. It doesn't say them directly. Lucky would have none of that.

It doesn't need to state these things outright, because we can see most of it in Harry Dean Stanton's eyes, on his face, and through every, labored-but-not-showing-it movement. It's the final lead performance of the late character actor, who died this year at the age of 91, following a career of non-stop work for more than 60 years. That this film turned out to be his swan song is, perhaps, cosmically appropriate. Lucky would definitely scoff at the notion. Maybe Stanton would, too.

This is one of those all-too-rare performances that shatters the line between actor and character. We know we're watching Stanton play the role of Lucky, whose biography matches Stanton's own at certain points—mainly the character's service in the Navy during World War II. By nature of the job, we never really learn much about the personal lives of character actors, as opposed to the movie stars. Lucky could be exactly like Stanton, or he could be completely different. The point is that, watching Stanton here, we could never determine where the character stops and where the actor begins—or vice versa.

It's a natural performance, in that we can imagine Stanton simply showing up for a scene as himself or being so lost in the character that little effort was required. In the film, Stanton is Lucky, and Lucky is that guy whom we've all seen, heard from, and maybe even talked to at some point—briefly, of course, because such a man doesn't have time, desire, or constitution for new acquaintances.

He already has friends. The film is mostly about them talking—about relationships, life, and, in the case of Howard (David Lynch), a pet tortoise that escaped. One day, Lucky falls during his morning routine. The doctor (played by Ed Begley Jr.) can't find anything wrong with the 90-year-old man, except that he's 90 years old. These things happen. The body withers, and there's nothing to be done to stop it. There's nothing he can do to improve his health, so Lucky, who doesn't believe in any spiritual or religious nonsense, has to accept what's coming.

That's really all there is to the film, but it's so confident—in communicating this place and these characters—that the film is stealthily about more than its surface of habits and storytelling. Near the end of the film, Lucky shows the character's regular places without his presence, and it's a stark realization of how much is lost without him in the picture. Knowing that the actor is gone, Stanton's performance here has the same effect.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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