Lucky is Harry Dean Stanton’s last starring role—he had been pretty much retired except for the occasional walk-on part for a few years already. And it was a good choice as a final performance. It was perfectly written for him, as the screenwriters have said, they used dialogue they had actually heard him use. It’s about a guy called Lucky, a misanthropic 90-year-old who nonetheless has a good side to his nature. He’s a sort of Zen atheist character, just like Harry Dean, and it covers a week when he thinks the end is on its way. And he’s comfortable with that.
There are a series of people who were friends of the actor, including David Lynch, who puts in a fantastic performance. Along with Twin Peaks: The Return, it’s evidence that Lynch is a great actor as well as a great director. Ed Begley Jr., another friend of Stanton’s, plays the town doctor. During the casting a number of people were also picked who were from outside his circle, but others (including Kris Kristofferson and Sam Shepherd) were considered for Lynch’s role and passed over for being too obvious as choices. Bringing in additional people like Ron Livingston and Beth Grant makes it all work, most of whom were people who had worked with director John Carroll Lynch previously.
The result is a really wonderful existentialist movie, with a beautiful performance from as natural of an actor as there is, someone who didn’t need to “act” but just was there on screen. Obviously there was a limited budget, but despite SAG rules that insisted on paying everyone scale they made the most of it. Much of it is shot in a bar with two guys who are great friends of Harry Dean’s, Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, and it ends up being a profoundly moving film.
It should have gotten a lot more attention. Every critic loved it, but a film about a 90-year-old misanthropic atheist in which nothing really happens is sadly not going to set the box office alight. One of the strongest points is its portrait of small-town life where someone who’s a bit of an oddball or a recluse can be accepted and cared for.
According to the screenwriter, Logan Sparks, Harry Dean knew this would be the last film he would make before he died. He did live long enough to see a rough cut. For a debut feature, getting someone who is obviously very talented as an actor but wants to direct instead of a big-name director was a good choice. You have the town, you have the actors, what else do you need? A big-name director might have tried to make it “their” movie, but instead Harry Dean was really at the centre.
There are some extras, including a documentary about the making of the film and Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction from 2012, which includes scenes with Lynch, Kris Kristofferson, Wim Wenders and Debbie Harry. There are also interviews with the two screenwriters and John Carroll Lynch, a booklet with a piece by Logan Sparks about his memories of Harry Dean, and a Q&A with the director.