Do you remember that feeling you got when you heard the news that longtime character actor J.K. Simmons had snagged an Academy Award nomination, eventually winning the award, as Best Supporting Actor for his astounding work in 2014's Whiplash?
If you're a true film fan, you threw your first in the air and went "YES!" because once, just for once, the Academy Award wasn't about politics or budget or campaigning but about one of contemporary cinema's finest character actors finally getting his chance to be the one in the spotlight.
That doesn't happen for character actors. That's just the way it is.
You're going to have to magnify that feeling times ten when you watch 91-year-old character actor Harry Dean Stanton's career defining performance in Lucky, the directorial debut of John Carroll Lynch and the kind of film that makes you remember why you fell in love with movies in the first place.
Lucky, the Awards Night screening at Indy Film Fest, arrives in theaters on September 29th and it's the kind of film that you should mark on your calendar and count the days until its arrival.
Is Lucky really that good? I think so, but to be totally honest I was so completely immersed in Lucky that I found myself less concerned about whether or not it was "good" and more concerned with soaking in every little image and every single morsel of enlightenment from this endearingly independent old coot named Lucky, a 90-year-old atheist who finds himself having to acknowledge he's perfectly healthy but nearing the end of his life and wondering what all of this is really about.
What I do know is that Stanton, who has acted in everything from major motion pictures (The Green Mile, Pretty in Pink) to short films to television series (Gunsmoke, Big Love), has for the first time in a career that began in 1954 with an appearance on television's Inner Sanctum on the brink of richly deserved critical acclaim.
If you don't know Stanton by name, you will recognize his face. Having just turned 91 this past weekend, Stanton's droopy and weathered appearance is instantly recognizable and utilized to utter perfection in this quiet little film that is simultaneously about not much of anything and just about everything.
Lucky, the man, is a 90-year-old grumpster who can't quite comprehend the hipsters, though there's not many hipsters to be found in this little podunk of a town where everyone seems to know everyone and the fiercely independent spirit is alive and well and wrapped like a tiny bow by the kind of quietly warm affection that makes you realize that you may be alone but you're never quite lonely.
Lucky is a lifelong bachelor, a World War II Navy vet whose settled ways can't quite explain how he's managed to outlive just about everyone and everything that served as the glue that held his quiet existence together. Lucky awakens each and every morning, smoking his smokes in between the same ol' yoga routines he's been doing for years. He's a pack-a-day smoker who starts off each day at a diner he walks to down the road where he's under the watchful eyes of Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley) and Loretta (Yvonne Huff), the latter being the kind of smalltown diner waitress who pays attention to when you don't show up at your usual time and ain't afraid to check on you. On the way home, he stops in at the neighborhood grocer where Victoria (Ana Mercedes), where you can see in every gesture and every glance that Victoria worries about this grumpy gus who offers up only glimpses of the Spanish he knows but can't always remember.
Lucky spends his days doin' his puzzles and watching his shows, strong opinions occasionally floating across the room when something uncomfortable or unfamiliar tries to pierce his comfortable and familiar routine. Nights are spent at Elaine's, one of two nightspots but the only one that'll actually have him. He's a familiar sight to the regulars at Elaine's including Elaine (Beth Grant), Paulie (James Darren), and Howard (David Lynch). There are others that Lucky encounters along the way, like Bobby (Ron Livingston) and Fred (Tom Skerritt) and Dr. Kneedler (Ed Begley, Jr.), who can't quite figure out how his patient has survived all these years.
Director John Carroll Lynch, himself a respected character actor, has taken an ensemble cast filled to the brim with character actors and given each of the key players moments to shine. The script, by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja, is a work of simplicity and wonder that somehow manages to live into its words by making sure every character, no matter how small, matters here. It's amazing to watch unfold and it's amazing to watch Lynch coax magnificent performances of richness and depth out of everyone.
While David Lynch is getting more headlines these days for his Twin Peaks revival, there's something utterly exhilarating about seeing the occasional character show up in a film that practically lives and breathes the values he's spoken about for years. Lynch's Howard is a remarkable man stuck dealing with the sudden departure of his companion, the fullness of this story best left to the viewing of the film. The always wonderful Beth Grant is again wonderful, capturing the magic in her words as Elaine and communicating more with a glance than most actors with eloquent monologues. The list goes on and on.
It is difficult to express how much I loved Lucky, a film that can be and should be interpreted differently by everyone who watches it. As a lifelong paraplegic with spina bifida who has survived, rather inexplicably, over 30 years past my life expectancy I found myself completely drawn into every word, every image and every moment of insight that felt like a channeled kernel of truth from a life fully lived through all its joys and sorrows. Intentionally and magnificently a love letter to Stanton himself, Lucky reminds us how lucky we are to have had him all these years, Lucky is also a wise and steady smile of a film about mortality, friendship, the need for human connection, spirituality, loneliness and the strange and unexplainable ways in which we find joy through it all.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic