Quiet pilgrimage of an ageing atheist

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Lucky (MA). Director: John Carroll Lynch. Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Tom Skerritt, Beth Grant, James Darren, Yvonne Huff, Barry Shabaka Henley, Bertila Damas. 88 minutes

Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky

'I'm on a path to insanity, and even though everything tortures me, I know how to love.' So declare (in Spanish) the opening lines of Vicente Fernández's 'Volver, Volver'. The song features prominently in Lucky, sung impromptu by its titular hero at the birthday party of the young son of a Hispanic American friend.

Elsewhere the sentiment is echoed in Johnny Cash's cover of Will Oldham's 'I See A Darkness': 'Did you know how much I love you? Is a hope that somehow you can save me from this darkness.' These songs form twin epithets to a story about a man who finds quiet joy in personal relationships while contemplating the void he believes exists beyond impending death.

The late great character actor Stanton, who died in September this year at the age of 91, completed shooting on this film in the space of 18 days — his final performance — and if the role of Lucky seems like it was tailor made for him it's no accident. Screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja wrote the script with him in mind, and embellished it with some of his biographical details.

An elegiac harmonica refrain from the traditional 'Red River Valley', performed by Stanton, haunts some of the film's quieter moments, and Foster Timms' song about Stanton, 'The Man in the Moonshine', plays over the closing credits. Explicitly, the film emerges as a living tribute to him.

But it does so gently, and with an eye always on larger realities. Stanton's Lucky is a 90-year-old atheist, whose daily routines seemingly have prolonged his life in defiance of a pack-a-day smoking habit. He inhabits a weather-worn desert town where he is well known to the locals, from the proprietor, Joe (Shabaka Henley) of the diner where he sits to do his daily crossword, to the staff and patrons of the dive bar where he spends his evenings, to the warm-hearted shopkeeper (Damas) who with unexpected candidness invites him to attend her son's birthday party. Lately Lucky has death on his mind, and these and other various acquaintances serve as stars by which he navigates his close-held fears of impending oblivion.

 

"To know that he is loved is the thing that allows Lucky to smile in the face of death and gives meaning to the nothingness he believes will follow."

 

Lucky's director Carroll Lynch is best known as a fine character actor in his own right, so it's no surprise that Lucky is every inch an actor's movie, full of thoughtful monologues and moments of poignant stillness that call upon the depths of its cast's talents. Also with a view to concise and transcendent storytelling, to the service of which the laconic style, on-point symbolism and earnest screeds of dialogue are turned.

Stanton's hangdog melancholic gifts are plied for all their worth, as the crossword obsessed Lucky tries to conjure a seven-letter word for 'augur', and happens upon the insight that realism is a 'thing'; something that points to the directness of the film's approach as well as to its hero's outlook.

Among those whose paths Lucky crosses are a lawyer (Livingston) specialising in wills who earns Lucky's ire and later opens up about his own near encounter with death, and a fellow World War II veteran (Skerritt, who appeared with Stanton in 1979's Alien), whose story about a young Filipino girl smiling in the face of death proves to be an illuminating (if heavy-handed) signpost on Lucky's late life pilgrimage.

As well, the filmmaker David Lynch (several of whose films Stanton appeared in) turns up as the grieving owner of a runaway tortoise. This long-lived reptile, seen at the film's beginning and end traversing a cactus ridden landscape beautiful in its starkness, turns out to be an avatar for Lucky himself. At 90 Lucky has seen plenty of life, too, and the tortoise's purported contemplation of something beyond the confines of its former existence reflects the awe and terror with which Lucky considers his passage from the only life he has ever known.

More touching still is Huff's small but pivotal appearance as a waitress from the diner who shows up at Lucky's home to check in on him, and with whom he ends up sharing his stash, some couch time, and his deepest fears. These kinds of small but profound human encounters are Lucky's lifeblood. To know that he is loved is the thing that allows Lucky to smile in the face of death and gives meaning to the nothingness he believes will follow.

 

 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Lucky, Harry Dean Stanton, John Carroll Lynch, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Tom Skerritt


 

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WH Auden, in one of his secular moments, counsels the reader to "find the human world enough." Now that's more than a big ask for people who ponder the meaning of existence and experience insufficiency even in the best of what our world and exclusively human love have to offer; yes, even Canada's and North America's Red River Valley, the song about which acts as a refrain in Lynch's film and is a classic in the cowboy genre, though not typical of it when one considers other classics of the same category such as "Ghost Riders in the Sky" and more recently, Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door", both exhibiting strong eschatological orientation and biblical allusion, and a sense of pilgrimage that doesn't end in nothing.
John Kelly | 16 November 2017


Thanks for not needing to override or second guess Lucky's professed atheism. Love nurtures and gives meaning, indeed.
Geoff Davies | 16 November 2017


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