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Harry Dean Stanton Is a Hero in Lucky

John Carroll Lynch's new film pays tribute to a fascinating career.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

“I don’t like people selling their blood to eat,” a trailer park superintendent tells an old man in Twin Peaks: The Return. Played by Harry Dean Stanton, who died last month at the age of 91, Rodd is guardian of the violent, impoverished fringe of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s northwestern gothic nightmare zone. He witnesses a child, crossing the street, mowed down by a coked-up psycho. He comes to the aid of a mother knocked off the hood of a car driven by her freaked-out daughter. He seems to have an old van and a driver available at his beck and call. He rides in the back seat, which is equipped with an ashtray. He strums his guitar and sings “Red River Valley” outside his trailer. In Lynch’s schema, Stanton’s Rodd is a walking embodiment of a nobler, prelapsarian—that is, pre-atomic—America. In the scope of the series, it was a minor role, but Stanton’s last as a hero.

Stanton takes his final turn as a leading man in Lucky, a portrait of an old man living alone in a small desert town, making his daily rounds of the diner, the grocery store, and the bar, watering his cacti and watching game shows. The film is directed by John Carroll Lynch, an actor (he played Marge Gunderson’s husband Norm in Fargo) making his debut as a director (and no relation to David Lynch). The script is by Logan Sparks, who worked for years as Stanton’s assistant, and Drago Sumonja, director of Char·ac·ter, a 2009 documentary portrait of several veteran character actors, including Stanton. There are loud echoes of Stanton’s life and career, also documented in Sophie Huber’s 2012 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. What was so fascinating about this old man?

First of all, his body. Stanton once recalled a roommate telling him about a role that would “let the wardrobe do the character.” In Lucky, Stanton spends a lot of the time in his underwear, padding around the house and doing yoga exercises as his morning cigarette waits for him in the bedside ashtray. Beside his enormous ears, the lobes ever descending while the rest of him has shrunk, there are the folds of skin around his upper arms and his knobby knees, always on the brink of collapse.

They do collapse, early in the film, as Lucky is staring at the blinking “12:00” on his coffee maker’s digital clock. The shot of Stanton falling out of the frame reminds us of his blackout at the start of Paris, Texas. That 1984 film, by Wim Wenders from Sam Shepard’s magnificent screenplay, is Stanton’s signal performance, the moonshot in a career spanning more than 200 films, his face etched across the history of postwar American cinema.

By the end, in certain dim light—as when Stanton is peering through the doorway of a bar in Lucky—it looked less like a face than a skull draped in thin, delicate leather. Mortality is on Lucky’s mind, as if for the first time since his fall. His doctor, played by Ed Begley Jr., tells him that there’s nothing wrong with him except that he’s “old and getting older.” Quitting smoking would at this point do him more harm than good. “I only eat so I can smoke and stay alive,” Stanton said when he was 87. “The void, the concept of nothingness, is terrifying to most people. And I get anxiety attacks myself. I know the fear of that void. You have to learn to die before you die. You give up, surrender to the void, to nothingness.”

A couple of versions of those lines are spoken by Stanton in Lucky. He says there’s no soul and tells a lawyer that leaving behind a tidy will and funeral arrangements doesn’t matter to the deceased: “You’re still dead.” The screenwriters of Lucky have acted as amanuenses to their friend, giving his memories one last go-around on camera. It’s easy to imagine that a monologue Stanton delivers to a friend over the phone late at night is his own as much as Lucky’s: “When I was a kid living in Kentucky I had this BB gun that didn’t shoot straight. So I was out one day, shooting at things, trees, leaves, and there was a mockingbird up in a tree singing it’s heart out. And I aimed my gun just to scare him away, pulled the trigger, and the singing stopped. It was the saddest moment of my whole life. The silence it cast in the world was devastating.”

Nothing in Lucky is quite as moving as the speech Stanton’s Travis makes to his estranged wife Jane at the end of Paris, Texas. That film is about the death of love, with the mother-and-child reunion a heartbreaking cathartic coda to a tragedy. (There’s a reversal of this scenario for the abandoned father of Molly Ringwald that Stanton plays in Pretty in Pink.) Lucky never reaches for the tragic. It’s about the grim absurdity of old age and death as anticlimax. A couple of Stanton’s old friends appear to look at death from other angles. A stranger named Fred, played by Tom Skerritt, Stanton’s castmate from Alien, lays his Marine Veteran cap on the counter of the diner and he and Lucky trade war stories. Fred remembers the face of a young girl he encountered in the Pacific, smiling at him because she thought she was about to die. Skerritt is eight years younger than Stanton, too young to have served in World War II, as Stanton did, in the Navy, at the Battle of Okinawa, and the contrast between their visages is stark. Everything accelerates, it seems, after 85.

David Lynch plays alongside Stanton in “Lucky.”
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

David Lynch is present in Lucky, too, as Howard, who sits beside Lucky at the bar where he goes for his daily bloody mary and plays the barstool gadfly and grouch. (You half expect Stanton to break out with his line from Repo Man, “I hate ordinary people.”) Howard is missing his pet tortoise, named President Roosevelt, an animal he knows will out live him and carries his casket on his back. Lynch’s scenes are typical of the film’s veering from quirk to morbidity and back again.

Aside from the dead mockingbird and the stories of the Navy, we’re left to fill in the gaps of Lucky’s life. Of course, it’s easy enough to do so by recalling Stanton’s accounts of his own past in interviews. There was the work—Logan Sparks attests in Partly Fiction to Stanton’s work ethic, which the actor himself always downplayed—and the high times of Hollywood partying and womanizing, which Stanton remembered rather sheepishly on camera. He never married, and may have fathered as many as three children in brief affairs, “but I never really bonded with them.” He’s reticent in Partly Fiction about his childhood. What exactly was it that gave him great tragic powers in Paris, Texas? Partly Fiction does have this exchange with David Lynch:

Lynch: How would you describe yourself?

Stanton: As nothing. There is no self.

Lynch: How would you like to be remembered?

Stanton: Doesn’t matter.

Lynch: What were your dreams as a child?

Stanton: Nightmares.