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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: October 30, 2017

A character actor takes his final bow as the leading man in ‘Lucky’

Written by: Dennis Perkins
David Lynch and Stanton as drinking buddies in "Lucky." Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

David Lynch and Stanton as drinking buddies in “Lucky.”
Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

“Lucky” is right.

The film, playing at PMA Films from Friday to Sunday, represents yet another impeccably curated independent gem chosen for Portland’s enjoyment by Portland Museum of Art screenings programmer Jon Courtney, an ongoing relationship that is, indeed, lucky for a movie-loving town still waiting for some enterprising soul to open up a dedicated art theater.

Lucky, too, is it that the film’s director, John Carroll Lynch (the prolific “Fargo” and “Zodiac” character actor, making his first film) crafted what turns out to be one of the most pitch-perfect cinematic farewells for one of the movies’ all-time greatest character actors.

When Harry Dean Stanton died back in September, Carroll’s “Lucky” was finished, and represents the legendary actor’s final role and only his first lead performance since his turn in Wim Wenders’ haunting, acclaimed 1984 film “Paris, Texas.” Like Wenders, Carroll (and “Lucky” co-writers Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja) needed someone who could imbue a closed-off, lonely man with a soulfulness that shines through even the character’s practiced taciturnity. So — lucky all around — Carroll provided Stanton with one of his finest roles, just in time to show us all how lucky we’ve been to have the actor in our movie-going lives all this time.

Stanton with Ron Livingston as the town's only lawyer in "Lucky."

Stanton with Ron Livingston as the town’s only lawyer in “Lucky.”

Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve incorporated Harry Dean Stanton into your movie memories. In a career spanning more than 60 years and over 200 film and TV credits, Stanton, with his weathered and woebegone countenance (even when young), always came across as so natural that “acting” never seemed to enter into it, even though he was a fine actor indeed. With his ready but crooked smile and hangdog features, Stanton excelled at playing weak men, even his most sympathetic characters (like Molly Ringwald’s loving but worn-down father in “Pretty In Pink”), wearing a lifetime of disappointment and defeat on their faces. If they had bad intentions (“Fool For Love,” “UFOria,” “Escape From New York,” HBO’s “Big Love”), Stanton’s rascally charm made them improbably relatable. If they were sympathetic (“Cool Hand Luke,” “Alien,” “Twin Peaks: The Return”), his everyman characters wore their sorry fates like their rumpled clothes. Alex Cox’s slyly bananas cult classic “Repo Man,” Stanton’s wildest role, showed how funny he could be when he cut loose, but, as an actor, Stanton’s strength was playing men for whom life was a losing fight with their own frailties.

Watch the trailer for “Lucky”

Lucky, the title character of Stanton’s final film, doesn’t seem weak, or particularly lost. A 90-year-old Navy vet living in a tiny but tidy house in a desert town, Lucky starts his day off with calisthenics, coffee and cigarettes before putting himself neatly together for his daily walk into town. There, he spars affectionately with the local diner owner (Barry Shabaka Henry), does his crossword, buys milk and smokes from the nice Mexican lady at the convenience store (Bertila Damas), and drinks his customary Bloody Mary at the bar owned by the no-nonsense Elaine (Beth Grant) and her adoring boyfriend, Paulie (James Darren). Each day in this almost plotless film follows Lucky’s daily routine, complete with philosophical phone calls to an unknown recipient, a single, vicious curse sneered at something we don’t see, and conversations with eccentric drinking buddy Howard (played by “Twin Peaks” and “Wild At Heart” director David Lynch, who’s counted Stanton among his favorite actors).

When Lucky inexplicably takes a fall in his kitchen, his gruffly friendly doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) assures him that there’s nothing really wrong; Lucky’s just old. Such an event, in a lesser, more predictable film, might send vocal atheist and loner Lucky on a quest for answers, or connection. But “Lucky” remains as stubborn as Lucky himself, eschewing every temptation to soften its protagonist’s ornery privacy and gruff humor. There are opportunities — an unlikely party invitation, an unexpected moment of connection with the friendly and concerned young waitress from the diner (Yvonne Huff), an almost accidental trip to a pet store — that look headed for more traditionally heartwarming territory, only to remain steadfastly true to Lucky’s hard-won, inscrutable solitude.

A run-in with the town’s only lawyer (Ron Livingston) and a haunted fellow WWII veteran (Tom Skerritt) at the diner veer closer to the sentimental, only for Stanton to reel Lucky’s reactions back in with a nimble dedication to who the man is determined to remain. (There’s also a speech from Lynch’s oddball Howard about his escaped pet tortoise that, while perhaps a little on the nose symbolically, mirrors the film’s disciplined approach to its story with affecting power.)

Lucky sees his doctor, played by Ed Begley Jr., after taking a fall.

Lucky sees his doctor, played by Ed Begley Jr., after taking a fall.

What Stanton does in this, his final bow in a career whose importance will only gradually become apparent as we realize how irreplaceable he is, is stride off into the sunset in the dusty boots and lived-in clothes of a character that — accidentally or not — shows him to his best effect, just once more. No sentimentality, no showiness, just an uncompromising old man, facing down life’s final obstacles with both grace and sly humor. Director Lynch provides us with one perfect set piece after another throughout the film to remember Lucky, and remember Stanton by (including one so potentially mawkish in theory but transcendent in execution that it serves as a delicately magnificent gift to the actor, and to us). In his last film role, Harry Dean Stanton is, as ever, unforgettable. We won’t see his like again.

“Lucky” screens at PMA Films on Friday at 2 and 6:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $8, $6 for members and students with ID. The film is not rated, runs 88 minutes and is highly recommended.


Coming to local screens

Nickelodeon Cinema
Opening Friday: “The Florida Project.” From the director of the indie success “Tangerine” comes another acclaimed low-budget gem, this time starring Willem Dafoe (who’s getting big Oscar buzz) as the outwardly gruff manager of a rundown Florida motel who copes with the daily grind of residents and transients (including some rambunctious kids) with an unexpected kindness and grace.

Space Gallery
Sunday: “Bronx Gothic.” Come experience this striking, electrifying portrait of writer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili (who’ll be on hand for a Q&A) as she presents her one-woman show about growing up black in 1980s New York. Fusing dance, theater, comedy, drama, and music, it’s a movie not to be missed.

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