At 90, Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) has tried to live his life on his own terms. Despite his doctor’s (Ed Beagley Jr) assurances that it would take “a stake through the heart, or a silver bullet” to kill him, Lucky can feel that death is encroaching on his existence. Although living a simple life, it is one without the “crutch” of an afterlife to help him face death. So with the threat of nothingness looming, Lucky wrestles with existential dread, and searches for meaning in life, against the background of the small desert town (with its cast of eccentric characters) that he calls home.
There is an amazing poignancy about Lucky. The lion’s share of which has to go to Stanton, and the pairing of actor to subject matter in his last film. Without him this meandering meditation on the impermanence of life, the approach of death, the recollection of a life lived, and the search for meaning (be it intellectual, materialistically, or spiritually), would be indulgent ephemera. Through the cycle of a few days of Lucky’s life, and the disruptions to it, we are guided through various discussions of that quest for meaning. Everything from true love, to game shows, to tortoises, to obvious Bible metaphors (albeit cheekily handled). The summation of which is given by a wily and thoughtful Lucky, before he strikes a light and turns to walk out the door of his favourite bar (with more than a nod to John Wayne in The Searchers).
Stanton is the glue for this, the questing knight clear in his own atheism, but tested by the encroaching void to come. As his friend reminds him every time he steps in the Diner, “you’re nothing”. The weariness and age of the actor, combined with his obvious passion for the role, shine through here. There seems little to separate Lucky from Stanton, little to get in the way of audiences believing that the irascible, doubt plagued, but curiously unrepentant (and eventually at peace) individual is the genuine article. Be that the truth of the situation or not – and the script was certainly written with Stanton in mind, and some of his behaviours and history have threaded their way in there – Stanton has found the “truth” in the role, and it is clearly there on the screen.
Which is what gives a rawness to this performance, making it so bitter-sweet to watch. As Lucky comes to the acceptance of his own mortality, you can’t but help feel the loss of the great talent that was Stanton. That face alone is a landscape as fascinating and rugged as the desert landscape that it is filmed against.
Yet that gentle contemplative pace is also a millstone for the film. Mercifully short, and laden with meaning and poignant acting, it is also free from most of the constraints of plot. Lucky’s “bucket list” is not in the realms of the extraordinary, or even those of a more social realistic melodrama, but rather the quiet contemplation of an ordinary life (and I do use that term with some reservation given the memories recounted). Where Lucky utterly nails the subtext, the main through-line of the film is lacking.
More of an extraordinary performance than an extraordinary film, Lucky is well worth seeing just on that basis alone. A fitting send off for an acting great.