It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Calvin Law reviews John Carroll Lynch’s debut feature.
‘Realism’, a word discussed between characters in the opening scenes of Lucky, has a double meaning in this film. It is the acceptance of a situation as it is – in this case, not the fear of death, or the joy of life, but the simple acceptance of both. It is also the means with which one captures something true to reality. Lucky sums up both meanings of the word beautifully, through a fantastic turn by the late, great Harry Dean Stanton as the titular Lucky: a wisecracking old man who lives alone, and enjoys cowboy hats, crossword puzzles, and a fixed daily routine. In classic Stanton tradition he is also a heavy smoker and wonderful singer. As the film proceeds, we get more and more insight into this aged and continually ageing title character. Stanton never makes him too cuddly, doesn’t shy away from his irascibility, yet is absolutely endearing and lovable, heartbreaking and hilarious throughout. This being one of his two swansong performances of 2017 – alongside his terrific reprisal of Carl Rodd in Twin Peaks: The Return – only serves to amplify the poignancy of going through Lucky’s journey of ‘realism’. It is more than just a fitting finale to Stanton’s career; it’s up there with his last leading role in Paris, Texas (1984) as career-best work.
We’ve all been very fortunate – indeed, very lucky – to have had the privilege of Stanton onscreen for the last sixty or so years. Starting off as a bit player in a string of Oscar-winning pictures from Cool Hand Luke to In the Heat of the Night to The Godfather: Part II, he soon became a mainstay in all sorts of genre films, enlivening the screen with even the most minuscule role, and when given a bit more to do, would excel to an even greater extent. Nowhere was this more evident than in his collaborations with auteur David Lynch, where he could break your heart with a few words and glances (The Straight Story), and when given a more prominent role like the loyal private eye in Wild at Heart was simply brilliant. Lucky is another collaboration with Lynch – with two Lynches, in fact. David co-stars as Lucky’s friend Howard, in desperate search of his tortoise President Roosevelt (don’t ask which one). Respected character actor John Carroll Lynch (the chilling Arthur Leigh Allen in Zodiac) takes on first-time director duties, and he does an excellent job. Many would falter with the well-worn formula of elderly man confronted by an uncertain future, helped along his way by a quirky neighbourhood, but John Carroll Lynch does a superb job of putting his own distinctive mark on this sub-genre.
Comparisons have been made to Jim Jarmusch with Lucky, particularly to Stranger Than Paradise and Paterson, and there is indeed a ‘slice of life’ touch brought to the film. We watch Lucky go through his day-to-day routine: he keeps in shape with some morning yoga, then goes without fail to his local diner and banters with the manager Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), then in the evening goes without fail to the local bar and banters with Howard and the couple in charge of the place (James Darren and Beth Grant). These scenes are broadly comic to begin with, and the screenplay by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja dropping down some juicy barbs for Lucky. Whether it’s sarcastically making puns through his crossword puzzle, or derisively mocking game show contestants on the television, Lucky is a joy to watch, a man simply content with life till a fall at home.
A medical checkup turns up nothing of concern despite his endless smoking, yet this minor accident puts his whole existence into perspective. The lifelong atheist Lucky begins coming to terms with what it means to come near the inevitable end. It is here the film takes a tonal change from broad comedy to poignant examination of morality. Remarkably, it remarkably does so without losing the humour and earnestness of its opening sequences. Though Lucky takes on some depressing topics it’s never a depressing film. Whenever a long speech is given on a heavy topic, it is delivered with grace, humour, and – above all – realism. When Lucky comes to verbal blows with a lawyer (Ron Livingston), it is subsequently resolved with a good-natured and hilarious diner scene containing just the right amount of emotional investment. When Howard makes a speech in honour of his tortoise, we are allowed to both laugh at and with him, while also sympathizing deeply with his plight. It’s a tricky balancing act the film nails to perfection.
The cinematography, painting the off-the-grid desert town in vivid detail, is only the standout among uniformly strong technical elements, and the ensemble cast as a whole is stellar (David Lynch and Tom Skeritt – in a wonderful cameo as a former marine – are highlights). The script is refreshingly free of cliche, knowing just when to stay away from the more soppy waters. But really, this is a showcase for its leading man through and through, and what a showcase. Whether it’s a gut-bustingly funny trip to an animal shelter, a recurring gag of Lucky trying to smoke indoors that culminates in a surprisingly tender moment, or an outstanding sequence where he attends a Mexican birthday party and bursts out into song, it’s a fantastic journey we take with Lucky, and a tender and fitting farewell to Mr Stanton.
Lucky premiered at London Film Festival on October 9th. Trailer below.