In his seven decades as a movie and TV star, Harry Dean Stanton rarely had to carry a picture. Stanton, who died earlier this month at the ripe old age of 91, was a character actor — the consummate supporting player who brought a weathered, Okie authenticity to just a scene or two, a few mere lines in classic films and indie experiments, from “Cool Hand Luke” to “Alien,” “The Rose” to “Seven Psychopaths.”
But the Kentucky good’ol boy could carry a picture on those rare occasions somebody asked. And fortunately, somebody did with “Lucky.”
It’s a wistful character sketch about extreme old age and solitude, following a quite elderly man through his circumscribed daily routine as he is finally forced to think of his own mortality.
There isn’t much story. The scenes are mostly anecdotes and monologues — supporting performers play characters who have one big speech they can sink their teeth into. No, it’s not particularly consequential.
But it’s a tour de force for Stanton, purposefully plodding forward, a sagebrush philosopher giving his valedictory performance, a lovely curtain call that bookends with his other famous shot at leading man — “Paris, Texas.”
Another character actor, John Carroll Lynch (“Zodiac,” this year’s “The Founder”) directed it, and he lets the camera be fascinated with simple details of the life of this World War II vet in the dying desert southwest hamlet he calls home.
The days start with Tejano music, light calisthenics and a cigarette. Lucky then dons his uniform — real cowboy jeans, boots and a battered straw hat — and walks to town. They know him at the diner. His sugar-loaded coffee is parked at his seat the moment he walks in.
“Lucky, you know you can’t smoke in here.”
He’s a regular at the convenience store where he stocks up on cigarettes.
“Well, I gotta go. My shows are on.”
Midday quiz programs and crossword puzzles make him philosophical.
“Reality is a thing!”
He shares those conclusions at night, when he makes his way to Elaine’s bar for his “Bloody Maria.” That’s where the sometimes profane bar-stool soliloquies kick in.
Elaine (Beth Grant) tells her pistol-packing barmaid tales, her “man” (James Darren) repeats the story of how they met and she saved him.
Vincent (Hugo Armstrong) wrestles with Lucky’s concept of “reality.” And Howard (director turned actor David Lynch) sidles up to share the latest misadventures of President Roosevelt, his “escaped” desert tortoise.
It’s amazing what can happen in a bar that doesn’t have a TV in every corner, where the drinkers are social and know when to say “when.”
The big dramatic incident in this tiny world is Lucky fainting. A visit to the dryly sarcastic doc (Ed Begley Jr.) ensues. And a series of testy encounters with an estate planning lawyer (Ron Livingston).
What they were shooting for here is variation on “The Straight Story,” Lynch’s wry comedy about a retired farmer who rides a lawnmower hundreds of miles to visit his ailing brother. Stanton had a supporting role in that, and Lucky has an encounter with a fellow WWII vet (Tom Skerritt) that closely copies one in that Richard Farnsworth farewell film.
“Lucky” isn’t as witty as that film, and it lacks the dramatic drive that a quest tale (even on a lawnmower) provides. The cast is mostly filled with former Stanton colleagues, old admirers back to tip their hat to him.
But Stanton gets to show us everything he’s got just one last time — the weary whimsy, the feisty combativeness, the soulful harmonic player and singer. He gets to deliver one or two last surprises as a character and a character actor, including the most poetic scene of his career.
And as “Lucky” winds down, it turns out that this is enough. Every great character player deserves a custom-fit curtain call just like this.
Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Tom Skerritt, Ron Livingston
Credits: Directed by John Carroll Lynch, written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:28