Opening exactly two weeks after its star Harry Dean Stanton’s death, “Lucky” arrives as an accidental eulogy for the beloved character actor. Stanton’s final role salutes him as the very picture of flinty, desert-dried masculinity — exactly the kind of decent but plain-spoken mysterious loner many of his fans would like to remember him as.
Borrowing a few biographical details from Stanton’s life, the virtually plotless drama exudes admiration for its nonagenarian muse, but it’s built so sparely that it doesn’t have much to offer anyone who doesn’t already share its reverence for the “Paris, Texas” actor.
“Lucky” is chiefly about ambience, and how a small emotional shift can make your surroundings feel entirely different. Shot in the deserts of Arizona and Southern California, prolific actor John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut follows Lucky (Stanton) as the taciturn brooder shuffles around a nowhere town, sipping coffee at a diner, buying milk at a mini-mart, and nursing a drink at a bar where the gray-haired regulars lecture one another about what life’s really about.
Playing a dapper pet owner grieving his lost, century-old tortoise, David Lynch gets the best speech in first-time writers Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja’s occasionally charming, thematically peripatetic script. With the auteur’s signature arch earnestness, Lynch’s white-suited Howard feels like a character out of “Twin Peaks,” exemplifying both small-town quirkiness and cockeyed wisdom as he expounds on the existential burdens of carapaced reptiles.
In contrast, Lucky says relatively little; you get the sense he’s already gotten most things off his chest, and there’s no point in repeating himself. Other than his still-brown hair, the lone wolf (and the actor playing him) are free of vanity: Stanton frequently appears in an undershirt and boxers, a perfectly adequate watering-the-garden outfit for someone who believes no one knows or cares where he lives. Those unforgettable frozen-in-shock eyes soften as it’s gradually revealed to Lucky that he’s not as isolated as he thought. The soundtrack’s lonesome harmonica eventually gives way to a mariachi performance by a croaky but heartfelt Stanton that allows him to be as distinct as he wishes, but undoubtedly part of a group.
Lucky routinely exchanges his own made-up greeting (“you’re nothing”) with an old friend (Barry Shabaka Henley, “Flashforward”). “You’re nothing,” Lucky hears back, to which he replies with sincerity, “Thank you.” It’s a revealing expression borrowed from Stanton’s life, and unfortunately, hardly anything else in the film rises to that level of meaningful idiosyncrasy.
Too many scenes are spent convincing us of Lucky’s eccentricity and self-sufficiency when they’re never in doubt. And so the protagonist’s grand statements about the inevitability of death and the indifference of the universe — meant to sound like pronouncements from an oracle — land like fortune-cookie messages written by a dude going through a bad breakup. The pacing is such that the film might be called “meditative,” except it doesn’t actually give viewers all that much on which to meditate.
Worse are the endless confrontations Lucky has with various servers about his “right” to light up a cigarette in their establishments. Rugged individualism can sound an awful lot like teenage nihilism if you crank it all the way up to 11. Ed Begley Jr., Ron Livingston, Tom Skerritt co-star opposite Stanton, delivering dialogue that demonstrates over and over just how much Lucky does things his way and his way only.
But as a farewell to an icon of honest unorthodoxy, it’s a fitting one. Let’s hope Stanton didn’t feel so alone when he departed for that wide, open desert sky.