It is not everyone who has the opportunity to make a film of their epitaph. But, this is the case with Harry Dean Stanton, his last film, drawing on aspects of his own life, something of an epitaph portrait.
It is also an elegy for Harry Dean Stanton, his career, his way of life, his screen images – and, before he walks along the desert road the end of the film, he actually does look straight into the camera and, rather gently, smiles.
While there are narrative aspects of the screenplay, the film is more of a character portrait, perhaps too slow for those who have action compulsions, but rewarding for those who are able to stay quietly with Lucky and the inevitability of his moving towards death. The tagline for the film is “the spiritual journey of an atheist”. While this is basically true, Lucky is not a rabid atheist but, rather, a Texan humanist.
Harry Dean Stanton has appeared in a number of films over many decades, something of a figurehead for many independent films, including those of David Lynch. However, he is best known for his lead role in the 1984 Wim Wenders film, Paris, Texas. Interesting to note that in the final song in the film (and there are a number of songs whose lyrics contemplate death, life, darkness…), The Moonshine Man, there is mention of Stanton by name and also a reference to Paris, Texas.
The location of this film doesn’t seem to be all that far from Paris, Texas. It is a small town in the south-west, and in the desert (with opportunities for some fine desert scenery). Lucky, his nickname because of his job in the Navy during World War II, lives alone, never married, in a modern enough house. We see him get up in the morning, turn on the radio, light a cigarette (he is most definitely a smoker, defending it though sacked from a restaurant job for lighting up while working there). He does exercises, gets dressed, walks/shuffles to a diner for breakfast where he is friendly with the manager and the assistant, chatting, being quiet, doing word puzzles and reflecting on the meaning of “realism”. He later declares his belief in ‘truth’ as a thing.
He wanders around the town, buy some milk for his fridge (the only thing there) and is friendly with the shopkeeper who later invites him to the fiesta, many Hispanics in the town, for her son’s 10th birthday. In the background, frequently there is The Red River Valley on a harmonica.
At night he goes to the bar, drinks, talks to friends, is quiet, listens to the barkeeper (Hugo Armstrong) who has a long sequence of explaining the mechanism of Deal No Deal which Lucky doesn’t think much of. The proprietor is Elaine, Beth Grant, who has some raucous stories of her own but who is very fond of her long-time partner, Paulie, star of the past, James Darren, and, especially, his friend, Howard, who is lamenting the loss of his pet tortoise, President Roosevelt. He is played by David Lynch, making a tribute to Stanton by appearing in the film, and has a very fine speech about loneliness and his devotion to his tortoise.
There is a bitter moment when an insurance salesman, Bob (Ron Livingston), is putting pressure on Howard and is attacked with Lucky’s disapproval. But, there are moments of redemption, with Bob later visiting the town, getting Lucky’s cold and silent treatment but taking the initiative, breaking through, telling some stories about himself and his daughter with Lucky responding well. A Marine veteran (Tom Skerritt), stops for a drink and shares a poignantly reminiscing chat with Lucky about their war service, in Asia, in the Philippines. Happiness and regrets.
But, Lucky has a blackout and fall, goes to the doctor, Ed Begley Jr, gets advice but realises he has to prepare for death, which, for him, is simply a void, the end of everything.
Speaking of redemption, there is a wonderful sequence when Lucky goes to the fiesta, is welcomed by the mother and her son, the woman introducing him to her mother who does not speak much English. A Mariachi band plays and, suddenly and unexpectedly, Lucky breaks into a plaintive song in Spanish, a beautiful moment revealing the humanity of Lucky.
It is not surprising to find that Lucky won the Ecumenical Award at the 2017 Locarno Film Festival.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting