This small picture — with its ordinary characters, remote location, no plot to speak of, limited palette of colors, no love interest, no politics, no antihero or superhero — moved me utterly: I did not just tear up; I sobbed.
What is Lucky about? It’s about everything and nothing. It’s about mortality and aging and the void: and the ways we face that void, and how — or if — we can face it down. It’s about loneliness. It’s about community. It’s about nihilism and neighborhood. It’s about the limits of individuality and the limitations of connection. It’s The Iceman Cometh. It’s Stoppard’s Arcadia.
And at the beating heart of it is Harry Dean Stanton: stalwart, taciturn, alone. The opening title credits in fact read: Harry Dean Stanton Is Lucky. And who is Lucky? A man of around ninety, childless, wifeless, uneventfully cycling through a daily round of activities — morning cigarette, yoga, crossword at the diner, trip to the bodega, tv game shows, evening drinks at the bar — on the outskirts of a tiny Arizona community, a peripheral man in a peripheral world. But his routine is agitated and his mindset unmoored when he falls down in front of the coffee machine’s red blinking 12:00 one morning.
What does it mean? Ed Begley Jr., as the humane, pragmatic, straight-talking doctor we all should have, sums it up early in the movie: You’re getting old and you won’t last forever.
The remainder of the film is about Lucky’s coming to grips with that implacable truth.
I know a woman who had breast cancer; after she was cured, she came out as a lesbian, left her husband and kids, and started a new life. I know a man whose wife left him and their kids with just a suitcase and barely a word after having survived the Pentagon on 9/11. And I have always believed that Dick Cheney’s dispassionate ruthlessness was grounded in having successfully faced down death after multiple heart attacks.
Such dramatic reinventions and recalibrations are beyond Lucky — certainly now and possibly ever. So he continues his routine, makes his rounds, all the way weaving this new piece of information into the fabric of his daily existence. The humble process is riveting and deeply affecting.
Freshman director but veteran working actor James Carroll Lynch has selected the crème de la crème of character actors to populate Lucky’s world. These familiar faces largely without names — more peripheral people — each get an opportunity to contribute to the texture of the film as they interact with Lucky; their ubiquity makes us feel we know them too, making these various small business owners and denizens at once familiar and individual. An exception is the sui generis auteur David Lynch, who plays Lucky’s friend Howard. Howard is working through his own existential trauma that has called into question everything he’s believed in: his hundred-year-old pet tortoise, President Roosevelt, has escaped. Only David Lynch could carry off this combination of absurdity and anguish and make us care — deeply.
George Bailey-like, Lucky doesn’t realize he is a fixture in this town. But this is no sentimental tale of misplaced values: being of a community doesn’t forestall the inevitable. As Lucky retorts to a man lauding the benefits of afterlife planning, you’re still dead. And it’s in this attitude that the mournful Iceman Cometh dirges sound, particularly in the barroom scenes where digs, drinks, and despair, reminiscences and reflections, are nightly exchanged.
The unnamed location contains a gratifying cross-section of white, black, Latino, male, female, young, and old: all of whom are treated respectfully by each other and the filmmakers — no, scratch that, not respectfully, normally. There is a refreshing lack of patronage or political correctness: there are just individuals tolerated as individuals, not as exemplars of a particular creed or breed. Watching an old clip of Liberace with the diner waitress, Lucky ruefully remarks that he spent so many years caring about who the pianist was screwing that he couldn’t appreciate his virtuosity. The film is richly studded with similarly insightful gems.
There is much, much more I could touch on that occurs or occurred to me during the course of this eighty-eight-minute film: the sparing use of the color red (Lucky’s phone connecting him to an unseen friend to literally exchange words, or rather, a word — “realism” is one day’s —, an exit sign, the flashing time indicator on the coffee machine); encounters with and remembrances of youth (Lucky’s own, a child’s birthday party, and an unseen and long-dead girl); a metaphoric casting out of Eden; a pervasive sense of lives being lived — rightly and normally — without reference to a larger context, symbolized by a bald, worn mountain that backdrops the town; and an evocation of Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece that also features a tortoise and struggles with issues of end time and end of lives:
Septimus: When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on an empty shore.
Thomasina: Then we will dance.
But I will end by simply noting the indefatigable tortoise, the cacti that forlornly yet resolutely thrust toward the pale blue sky — and Harry Dean Stanton.