If you are in the first half of your visit on earth the chances are this film is not for you. Even viewers who have been here longer may find the film excruciatingly slow, painfully confronting, or both. Staring into the face of death can be like that. But if you have ever pondered the reason or sequel for your visit, the poignantly introspective essay on aging and death, ironically called Lucky (2017), may be one of the most honest films you have ever seen.
It may be a metaphor for life itself, but the plot is as insubstantial as it is profound. Framed by the wide and dusty Arizona desert, Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) is a humourless and crabby 90-year old loner whose daily routines are repetitive and banal. We meet him at an aesthetic low point in his saggy underwear, meticulously conducting his morning yoga stretches in between puffing his packet-a-day lifetime habit. Just as he sets out on his daily pattern of visiting a shop or bar or wandering the streets of his small-time nowhere town, he notices a kitchen clock ominously flashing 12:00 and falls to the floor. His doctor confirms that the unhurt but dazed Lucky has nothing wrong with him other than being old.
The fall is Lucky’s epiphany for confronting his mortality and, as an atheist, there is no comfort to be found in a higher power. Not much more happens in this film. A friend deep in grief over his missing 100-year old tortoise named President Roosevelt becomes a dark comedic touchstone for the same inconsequential and inevitable fate that awaits Lucky and the audience. The doctor and the tortoise are hinge points that shape the sparse narrative; another occurs at a young boy’s birthday party where the usually morose Lucky unexpectedly sings a mournfully beautiful Spanish song. It is the only scene where Lucky appears to embrace the rawness of being alive. If there is a tension curve it snaps taut when he speaks the words “I’m scared” at what lies ahead; mercifully, the curve softens with a glimmer of optimism in the film’s final scene.
This minimalist narrative compacted tightly into 88 minutes feels so much bigger because it is. The film’s centre of gravity is Lucky’s face, where the camera spends a lot of time looking into the sunken sadness and deeply etched markings of decades gone by. It’s a face that rarely emotes except for annoyance, confusion, or fear, which heightens the contrast with his almost spiritual gaze while singing the Spanish lament that means ‘Going Back’. It seems odd to credit Stanton with performance authenticity given that, in reality, he is an old man playing an old man.
For many fans of Stanton and his long illustrious career, the film climaxes in two very different worlds. The fact that he passed away late last year at 91, and before he saw the film’s release, transforms his final work into something akin to an existential masterpiece.
Director: John Carroll Lynch
Stars: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston