VIFF: True to its Promise, Lucky Gives Us Harry Dean Stanton One Last Time

Overview: A 90-year old comes to terms with his life and his death. Magnolia Pictures; 2017; Rated PG; 88 minutes.

That’s Some Heavy Shit: The concept of aging has always scared me much more than the concept of death. Being trapped inside a body that’s slowly breaking down is a sobering thought, one that encouraged me to start exercising and taking care of myself early. Lucky shows us Harry Dean Stanton’s 90-year old body close up in full detail as he practices his daily yoga exercises and drinks his morning glass of whole milk. It’s strange to look at—bony and frail, soft skin in folds— and it’s a far cry from the man he once was. A black-and-white photo serves as a reminder of what he looked like in better days, back when death was far off and not staring back at him in the mirror.

Set against an arid desert backdrop, Lucky is a movie about death, and like anything else that’s about death it’s just as much about life. You can’t have one without the other. The absence of death negates the meaningfulness and beauty of life, and, well, if there was no life then we wouldn’t be talking about it at all. So here we are.

Realism is a thing: At this point in his life, Lucky is a man of regimen. He wakes at the same time, wears the same clothes, smokes the same cigarettes, and does the same crossword at the same diner in his same seat. He’s a loner, (“There’s a difference between being lonely and being alone.”) but these rituals have built a community of people who care about him. Lucky is surrounded by people who love his dry humour and wit, chuckle at his ornery moments and genuinely care about his wellbeing. Friendship in all its forms is touched on so meaningfully in this film.

One of Lucky’s closest friends is Howard (played by David Lynch) an eccentric man whose main motivation is the loss of his beloved pet tortoise, Roosevelt. This character could have been a crude caricature of senility or base comic relief. But Lynch plays it with such finesse that his monologue about the affection of his tortoise was so profoundly moving, it brought real tears.

Crybaby: This, of course, is not the only moment for weeping the film allows. There is plenty to cry about in Lucky, but not tears of hopelessness or defeat. When Lucky takes a fall and visits his doctor, he’s told there’s nothing wrong with him besides getting old. He’s told he’s fortunate to have made it this far, being given the opportunity to process his own death, witness it, and come to terms with it. For a man like him, navigating his feelings is difficult. More is said in his silences, but when he does open up about a powerful story from his childhood or his days in the war, this is when the film becomes a touching portrait of the end of life.

Lucky comes to terms with his entire life through the people who surround him and the people who insert themselves into his life against his will.  And in turn, all of these people confront their own lives and their own death because of what he brings. There’s a pricelessness to the exchanges in the film, a quality of honest writing that is missing from so much else. Without them saying anything, we’re able to witness the hurt and the joy in people’s lives, imagine their varied stories and genuinely care about and value them, no matter how small their part.

Every single person plays their role with so much life. Ron Livingston plays an especially endearing lawyer tasked with helping Howard make his end of life plan, and his mere presence offends Lucky before he’s won over as someone who also faces death, just a little way farther off. Ed Begley Jr. is his cigarette-encouraging doctor whose good nature helps Lucky accept his short future. Tom Skerritt is a fellow veteran who gives him a platform to explore his dark memories about the second World War. Yvonne Huff plays arguably the most important role, placing herself in Lucky’s face and bringing out his most honest confession through a simple touch.

The Bright Side: Thankfully there’s just as much to laugh at as there is to cry about. Stanton’s delivery is flawless whether he’s telling people to go fuck themselves, or smoking grass and giving his real opinion on Liberace. He embodies the honesty that the elderly come to when it’s time to stop giving a shit and just live the rest of your life being authentic to yourself. Through his authenticity everyone around him learns deep lessons, the most important of all, how to summon joy in the midst of horror.

Beyond the earnest and memorable performances, director John Carroll Lynch’s eye captures every moment like a photograph. There’s a sense of being an extra step back from the action, a gentle hand guiding the camera to observe the meaningful and the mundane. Gorgeous shots of Stanton staring into the deep red of the future, wrapped in sheets, or gazing over the desert feel just as important as those filled with emotional dialogue. It’s rife with symbolism yet to be explored and the camera gets the most out of every shot.

Overall: Lucky is made so bittersweet given the recent passing of Harry Dean. But even if he were still alive, the film would be just as poignant. No matter what I or anybody else says about it, we’ll never touch how profound and meaningful this work of art really is. Everyone should see this movie, at least once before they die.

Grade: A

Featured Image: Magnolia Pictures