Saturday 15 September 2018

Into the sunset: "Lucky"

Everything about Lucky suggests it was set up as one final lap of honour for the late, great American character actor Harry Dean Stanton. It's co-written by Stanton's friend and former assistant Logan Sparks; a handful of the actor's associates show up to share a few scenes with the belatedly promoted lead; the director is John Carroll Lynch, who surely knows a thing or two about the vagaries of being a career-long supporting performer. (Lynch is perhaps best known for portraying the most likely killer in David Fincher's Zodiac.) Stanton, to the last, remained Stanton, the weatherbeaten oldtimer with the bow-legged walk of someone who spent much of his early screen time on horses, the actor's actor who made his debut for Hitchcock, became totemic during the New American Cinema of the 1970s, then moseyed along through Paris, Texas to Twin Peaks, living, breathing reassurance that no film, no project - not even Alien Autopsy with Ant and Dec - would be entirely dreadful so long as he popped up for a few minutes. He's pretty much the whole show here, playing the eponymous Texan, a not un-Stanton-like independent soul - almost more spirit than human, a ghost of movies past - whose set routine is interrupted by signs his considerable good fortune, which has previously granted him the freedom to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day without lasting health effects, may just be running out.

One settles in for a US indie variant of those eccentric Brit crowdpleasers that emerged in the wake of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, slightly-to-extremely indulgent of their ornery protagonists. If Lucky far exceeds those initial expectations of fluff, it's in part because Lynch restricts his film to a no-frills, no-fuss, yet ever-eloquent and expressive description of one man's way of life. The spiritually inclined might call it Zen-like: we're merely invited to watch Lucky sitting in a diner doing the daily crossword, taking three hefty spoons of sugar in his coffee, getting back home in time to watch his shows (sorry Noel: a passing burn suggests Stanton was no fan of Deal or No Deal's inane complexities), sloping round his home and garden in boxer shorts and cowboy boots, knocking back Bloody Marys at the local watering hole. Lucky's primary subject is Stanton, this man, that (part turtle, part Buster Keaton) face; but its secondary field of study is the seemingly infinite downtime that stretches ahead of us after the working life is done, a liberation to some, to others a limbo. It wouldn't be hard to see the approach of death in this Tuesday afternoon-shaped void: the film marks its halfway point with a sequence in which an ashen-faced and impossibly lonely-looking Stanton tucks himself into bed to the accompaniment of Johnny Cash's "I See a Darkness", inspiring viewer thoughts that this may perhaps be one last, grave sleep.

Still, as our hero says in the wake of an earlier fall, "let's not make a production out of it": rest assured that it isn't. Instead, Lynch keeps ushering his star into unexpected encounters, knowing that it's often enough, from a cinematic perspective, to corral kindred spirits or different energies and personalities into the same frame. There are cherishable contributions - in the type of bit-parts Stanton once made his own - from the director's namesake David Lynch (no relation), making arguably his most normal screen appearance of all time, albeit in the role of a man who's lost a pet tortoise named after President Roosevelt; from Ed Begley Jr. as a straightshooting physician; and from Tom Skerritt (another of those supporting players it's a pleasure to see up and about, and in steady employment) as a fellow combat veteran with whom Lucky shares a few memories over a cup of joe. The film's love of such conversations - its sincere belief that two people jawing, or one man sparking up, can in itself be the basis of a moving picture, and possibly even communicate an entire worldview - finally positions Lucky closer to such semi-improvised indie-heyday experiments as Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's Blue in the Face or Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes: a certain lineage, not just in acting but film, is being honoured here.

That inbuilt looseness, though appealing and even rather charming over time, can feel somewhat disorienting for any viewer accustomed to template screenplays and unashamedly proscriptive indies. Deep into Lucky's final half-hour, we find the title character pottering around pet stores and playing the harmonica, showing up at a kid's birthday party to trill a song that might be an encore, while Lynch's camera drifts away to study the fireflies gathering in this guy's window; you keep expecting the film to go in one particular direction, and it never quite does, which may be as good a description of the Stanton oeuvre as any. (Again, I refer you to Alien Autopsy.) What you'll likely take from Lucky is some understanding, however tangential, of what it was to have been (or been around) Harry Dean Stanton, and what it was to have been lucky enough to have been (or been around) Harry Dean Stanton: to have grown to a ripe old age, been liked and respected by one's peers, forgiven for any grouchy outbursts or intemperate behaviour along the way, and able to have lived, died and, in the meantime, worked on one's own terms. If that alone doesn't bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye, the film's final tip of its hat to this old cowboy walking into the sunset almost certainly will. Hard as it may be to believe in 2018, the movies are still capable of doing right by the people who've sustained them all these years.

Lucky is now showing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon and the BFI.   

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