Still trudging through the blasted desertscape of the mind 33 years after Paris, Texas, Harry Dean Stanton hoofs along beneath the opening titles of Lucky, his richly aimless swan song, past cacti and scrub brush, the sparseness of the landscape suggesting something of the lead’s drift of mind. Stanton’s Lucky, an old salt who director John Carroll Lynch (yes, the beloved character actor) and screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja conceived of as essentially Stanton himself, tumbleweeds about a small desert town, interested mostly in the essentials. His response to a dude at the bar telling him about the game show Deal or No Deal: “So, a guy picks a case and I’ve gotta wait a fuckin’ hour to see what’s in it?” A woman who rescues pets insists that he should consider adopting a critter, giving it “a forever home,” and you may laugh in anticipation of his barfly philosopher’s response: “Nothing’s permanent.”
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Lucky bookends Paris, Texas in its sense of its hero’s restlessness, but here he’s at last rooted, his search for meaning planted in routine. We watch Stanton’s skeletal Lucky trod through his days: Yoga in the a.m., in white tank top and underpants, then some game shows and the crossword puzzle. Working on a clue, he wonders aloud, “Is realism a thing?” He means the word itself, and consults the antique dictionary he keeps on a lamplit lectern, but also means much more than that, maybe — or maybe it’s bullshit.
You’re free to ponder that during this breezy but unhurried film’s diner colloquies and scenes of Stanton plodding about town. There’s little story; we just steep in Stanton. Sometimes a sharp vision cuts through the elegiac meandering: Savor the sight of one of America’s great character actors, pushing 90, running hose water on a cactus in his underwear, a straw hat and black cowboy boots. Once in awhile, Lynch offers up dada conceptual comedy. David Lynch turns up in Lucky’s local bar as a neighbor and pal distraught over the loss of his tortoise, President Roosevelt, who has gone missing; that storied director — who cast Stanton in Wild at Heart, The Straight Story, Twin Peaks: The Return and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, wherein he uttered the immortal complaint, "It's just more shit I gotta do now" — looks here like one of The Music Man’s traveling salesmen in retirement, and he pronounces that tortoise’s name “Ruse-uh-veldt.”
Stanton’s Lucky, of course, finds the turtle business asinine but also fascinating: a creature that lives so long, moves so slowly and does so little. As a movie, Lucky’s something like that, moving ahead but heading no place in particular. Lynch has crafted an almost proudly minor work, a hangout movie whose reason for being is Stanton’s presence. As Lucky, the actor — who died on Sept. 15 — tells some stories from his own life, declaring, “Authority is arbitrary and subjective.” He talks about how he was wrong when he was younger to care about who Liberace was screwing and opines that there’s no such thing as a soul, a belief Stanton shared.
In the film’s greatest moment, Lucky, inspired by a mariachi band, surprises the crowd at a kid’s birthday party by singing, a cappella, the great ranchera ballad “Volver, Volver.” He’s creaky but impassioned, and his Spanish is excellent. Stanton might not have had a soul, but he had loads of it.