Film Reviews


Published November 17, 2017
'Tell me the one about the tortoise again..' Harry Dean Stanton in 'Lucky'

If films were pieces of music the standard Hollywood blockbuster would be a symphony of the most bombastic persuasion. Lucky is a sonata for harmonica.
The film is the directorial debut for character actor, John Carroll Lynch, familiar from movies such as Fargo (1996) and The Founder (2016). He’s chosen to begin with something small in scale but deep in meaning, as we wrangle with questions of life, death and the universe in a tiny hamlet somewhere in the California desert, down Mexico way.
Our guide is the late Harry Dean Stanton, who died at the age of 91 shortly before this movie was released. It’s no surprise to learn that scriptwriter Logan Sparks based the lead character on Stanton himself. Like Stanton, Lucky was born in Kentucky, and shares much of his outlook on life. It may be the first time that an actor’s final role was to play himself, as if fiction and reality had eventually fused together.
We begin by watching the sun rise over the mountains in the desert. Cut to a field of towering cacti, and a tortoise making his steady way across the bottom of the frame. The camera zooms in on a house on the outskirts of town where Lucky is already finishing his third cigarette of the morning. Next comes the ablutions, the yoga exercises, and a large glass of milk.
All this time we see nothing but fragments: an elderly body in white underwear, a hand, a foot. We’re three minutes into the movie before we see Lucky’s face, framed against the blue of the sky. A human tortoise, he wanders slowly but purposefully into town, as the soundtrack plays Red River Valley, performed on harmonica by Stanton himself. When he enters the local diner, Joe behind the counter says: “You’re nothing.”
“You’re nothing,” he replies.
The themes and mood have been set. Like many elderly people, Lucky’s life has settled into an inflexible set of routines which have become their own raison d’etre. He does the crossword puzzle, watches game shows on TV, pays a daily visit to the same small grocery store, and spends his evenings in the same bar, arguing with the same group of regulars.
Lucky is an irrascible character, proud of his self-sufficiency. He smokes a packet of cigarettes a day, contending that if the fags were going to kill him they would have done so already. We learn that he was in the navy, and has never been married. He has no kids and no pets, although he harbours a soft spot for both.
This film could easily have been a sentimental portrait of a crusty old loner with a heart of gold. It sidesteps that fate largely because of Stanton’s blunt, no frills performance. His face is so ragged and weatherbeaten it’s as though he barely has the energy to get beyond a deapan. When he does, we see a flicker of anger, affection or anxiety that starts with the eyes and sends a miniscule shudder through his features.
Although it runs for less than 90 minutes, Lucky is a spacious film that draws on the clear, dry atmosphere of the desert, and the small town scenario of people with time on their hands. Lynch has assembled an excellent, diverse cast, which includes David Lynch as Howard, a dandyfied regular at the bar, who is broken-hearted because his pet tortoise, President Roosevelt, has run (or lumbered) away.
We know the President is out there, as jealous of his independence as Lucky. We know that tortoises can live for more than a hundred years, withdrawing into their shells at the first sign of danger.
Lucky likes to give the impression that he has no sense of his own mortality. He is an outspoken atheist, and still willing to challenge a younger man to a fight. The first chink in his armour appears when he collapses at home, in the midst of his daily routine. Suddenly he is forced to confront the idea of his own extinction, and it’s a scary prospect. In a memorable scene he lies coiled in a foetal position in bed, while the soundtrack belts out Johnny Cash, singing I See a Darkness – from one of those spine-tinging late albums.
Lucky’s friends have long felt that the end must be in sight, and are continually asking about his health. We see the pattern of his relationships slowly evolve, as he’s visited by a waitress from the diner, and attends a birthday party for son of the Mexican lady who runs the grocery store.
There are other deviations from his routine, such as a conversation with a former marine who turns up at the diner and reminisces about the war in the Philippines.
Tracking back over his own memories, and finding a new pleasure in the world around him, we see Lucky coming to terms with the inevitable. He’s not ready to let go yet, but he’s found a way to smile in the face of death.

Directed by John Carroll Lynch
Written by Logan Sparks & Drago Sumonja
Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Skerritt, David Lynch, Beth Grant, Barry Shabaka Henley, James Darren, Yvonne Huff Lee, Hugo Armstrong
USA, rated MA 15+, 88 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 18 November, 2017