No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad. — Roger Ebert In the end, you end up accepting everything in your life – suffering, horror, love, loss, hate – all of it. It’s all a movie anyway. — Harry Dean Stanton (quoted in Andrew Pulver, Harry Dean Stanton, cult American actor, dies aged 91, The Guardian, September 26, 2017)
Harry Dean Stanton is Lucky, a soft-spoken, cantankerous old fellow who got the moniker when he was a cook in the navy during World War II because cook is the easiest job in the navy. The film follows Lucky through his day, beginning at home with his morning ablutions and yoga, the crossword puzzle, and game shows on TV, then making his rounds of the small desert town where he lives. He stops in at the cafe where he does not have to speak a word for them to bring his coffee just the way he likes it. At a convenience store where he picks up milk and cigarettes, the owner invites him to a fiesta in celebration of her son's birthday. As he continues his walk he pauses in front of one particular storefront and glares at it for a moment, mutters "cunt," then continues on his way. The object of his dissatisfaction remains a mystery until quietly resolved near the film's conclusion in a manner that elicited a chuckle and the thought, ah, that explains it. The day's close finds him at a little bar where the locals gather and engage in good-natured banter and ribbing, the bar's crusty owner (Beth Grant), no spring chicken, regales patrons with tales of her sexual allure, and Howard (David Lynch) laments the loss of President Roosevelt, his pet tortoise who ran away when he left the gate open.
One day Lucky keels over as he suffers an anxiety attack while staring at a digital clock whose red numbers are flashing at 12:00. This episode sends him to his doctor (Ed Begley Jr.), who can find nothing wrong other than he smokes, to the effects of which he is seemingly immune, and he's old. As for why he fell, well, he is 90 after all. Things are starting to fall apart. The doctor tells him that not many people get to the point he has reached where they can witness what they are going through and clearly examine it, as if this is a bit of good fortune.
Lucky does not exactly find the doctor's words reassuring. He is not a religious man, so no comfort there. He is frightened by what he sees, a truth he will not deny, the prospect that what lies ahead is nothingness, the void. One day at the cafe he encounters a stranger, an ex-marine (Tom Skerritt), another World War II vet. Both served in the Pacific. They swap stories, and the marine relates a moving tale about a little Buddhist girl who is certain the marines have come to her village to kill her, yet she greets them not with fear but with serenity that comes with acceptance of fate. Not surprisingly the story of the little girl resonates with Lucky.
Lucky and the people in his life are not a touchy-feely bunch. I think it is safe to say there are few if any bosum buddy, best friend forever type relationships to be found among them. Rather there is the simple, unspoken, but profound sense of connection and caring that grows up among people who are part of each other's daily lives. This is not a subject that any of them would voice in reflection or conversation. But it is there, as deeply part of each one's makeup as Howard's attachment to President Roosevelt the tortoise. It is just who they are. It's what we think of as community.
Lucky's searching is spiced with low-key humor and old-coot crankiness. The search is not for meaning but for acceptance of a situation as it is, the situation that matters being Lucky's concrete, existential situation, the certainty that his own death will come and anxiety about the nothingness that lies beyond. There is nothing of the highbrow in the depiction, no highfalutin profundity, just the pathos and spirit of human community and everyday life. All in all, Lucky is a wistful and humane film, not a must-see, but a little triumph that will reward you if manage to catch it.
Memo from the editorial desk
The sentence about community was inserted at the end of the next to last paragraph after this piece was published.