Every character actor should get a send-off like Lucky. But then not every character actor is Harry Dean Stanton. In recent years, Stanton, who died on Sept. 15 at 91, became almost as well known for his charismatic offscreen personality as for his decades of work in film (usually as an arresting supporting player, occasionally as a sublime leading man). If you’ve seen the 2014 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, you know that the grizzled actor created an aura of Zen philosophy and hard-bitten life lessons, all woven together with Mexican songs (he was a superb singer), tequila, and cigarette haze. The makers of Lucky clearly incorporated many of Stanton’s own attitudes into their film, and the result—though completely fictionalized—feels like a tribute to a singular friend.
The film itself is extremely slight, barely a coat rack on which to hang an idea. Screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja invent a small-town Southwest setting for our protagonist’s modest puttering. Lucky, played by Stanton, is a chain-smoking grouch who does yoga exercises every morning and trundles to the diner for ritual coffee and conversation. An unexplained fainting spell has Lucky pondering the possibility that his time on Earth might be drawing to a close, but he refuses the usual kinds of solace that people offer him: companionship, religion, assisted living. He prefers showing up at the bar every night and drinking a bloody Mary and griping about how he can’t smoke inside the place anymore.
Lucky is directed by John Carroll Lynch, himself a terrific character actor. The art of that breed depends on expressing a great deal in a short amount of time (a skill the bald, beefy Lynch demonstrated with chilling precision in Zodiac, where he played the likeliest suspect in the Zodiac killings). So Lynch appreciates what the basic appeal of Lucky is: the observation of a human being who carries around a specific manner, voice, and persona, someone we’ve seen many times over many years in countless movies and TV shows. For Stanton, who shuffled through TV Westerns and cop shows from the 1950s onward, this screen personality expanded in his miracle year of 1984, when he played the repossession expert in Alex Cox’s surreal cult comedy Repo Man—in which he espoused the “repo code” (“Etch it in your brain”)—and the wanderer in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, a role Sam Shepard wrote specifically for him after Stanton complained to Shepard about the fact that coyote-faced character actors rarely get to play romantic leads.
Those roles, and a lifetime of committed, unglamorous idiosyncrasy, led to a ton of unusually heartfelt obituaries and appreciations when Stanton died last month. Lucky has the same affection pouring out of it, which makes it easy to forgive its clumsier attempts at symbolism (there’s a much-discussed lost tortoise that serves as a cheerfully obvious metaphor for Lucky’s own hard-shelled existence) and its mostly caricatured picture of community. Happily, it surrounds Stanton with a crew of able character actors, including Beth Grant, Ron Livingston, and (in single-scene performances that underscore what a character actor must do) Tom Skerritt and Ed Begley, Jr. We’ve also got David Lynch—he plays the owner of the lost tortoise—who directed Stanton in a handful of projects, including Twin Peaks: The Return. But Lynch is not the biggest surprise in the cast. That honor goes to the well-traveled actor who plays the outgoing goombah holding court at the bar every night: none other than James Darren, “Moondoggie” from the Gidget pictures and star of the fondly remembered 1960s sci-fi TV show The Time Tunnel.
Lucky is a movie-lovers’ film. It relies on viewers having warm memories of Stanton and a familiarity with the mythological American West. There’s a shot here of Stanton sitting at the dark bar in a pool of light; on the other side of the screen and behind him is the only other illuminated thing in the shot, a colorful, classic jukebox. If you haven’t been in that bar and seen that guy and that jukebox, you’ve seen them in the movies, or in your imagination. Harry Dean Stanton belongs right there. Lucky, Not rated. Opens Fri., Oct. 13 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.