"LUCKY" — 3 stars — Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Barry Shabaka Henley, Bertila Damas, Ed Begley Jr.; not rated; Broadway
Sometimes what happens off-screen makes a film all the more meaningful. Veteran actor Harry Dean Stanton died last month at age 91, giving director John Carroll Lynch’s “Lucky” — a film about a crusty atheist looking for meaning in the twilight of his life — an unexpected poignancy.
Stanton plays the titular character, a ragged old cowboy who looks like he was lifted out of a spaghetti western and dropped in the 21st century. Day after day he shuffles through the small, unnamed Southwestern town where he’s lived so long that everyone knows him by his first name, working through a curious routine that is just mysterious enough to keep it interesting.
He opens his day with a series of yoga exercises performed in his underwear, then drops by the local diner to drink coffee, work on a crossword puzzle and chat with the owner, Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley). A stop at the local market, run by a friendly Latina woman named Bibi (Bertila Damas), usually follows, and along the way he stops to curse at some off-screen object of derision. Eventually he winds up at the local bar, where a group of regulars — including director David Lynch as an eccentric tortoise owner — welcomes him as an old friend.
Lucky’s routine is interrupted when, after becoming mesmerized by a blinking digital clock in his kitchen, he suffers a fall and winds up at the doctor’s office. Here Dr. Christian Kneedler (Ed Begley Jr.) finds that, in spite of Lucky’s daily cigarette habit, he’s in remarkably good shape for a man his age, and Dr. Kneedler encourages him to make the best of the rare opportunity he’s been given.
This is more problematic than you might expect, since beneath the routine, Lucky emotes an air of discontent and unhappiness that emerges at the bar when he angrily declares to a friend that the soul doesn’t exist, and later challenges an estate lawyer to an unprovoked fist fight outside. “Lucky” is not driven by action so much as by Lucky’s personal journey to find joy in what feels like a meaningless existence.
“Lucky” feels more like a portrait than a story, enhanced by the long, angular limbs of its protagonist, and the heavy glasses that always slide down his long nose under a shock of unkempt hair. Lucky may live in the 21st century, but he clings to dated technologies, making regular calls on a landline phone to an unnamed friend and consulting an oversized dictionary at his house that sits on a pedestal in the corner of his living room like a shrine.
Lynch also catches our attention with the strategic use of color, especially the bold reds that turn up in Lucky’s Bloody Marys, his telephone and that blinking clock light in his kitchen.
What might otherwise be a pretty boring experience is anchored by Stanton, who turns in a perfectly magnetic performance that would be fascinating even if you didn’t know the actor had passed away recently. Audiences may be split on the final destination of Lynch’s film, which isn’t quite what you would call hopeful, but at the very least, “Lucky” will give audiences something to think about after enjoying a veteran performance from a beloved actor.
"Lucky" is not rated, but contains some scattered R-rated profanity; running time: 88 minutes.