How lucky is it that the irreplacable character actor Harry Dean Stanton got to go out with a movie like “Lucky”? How lucky is it that you and I are able to see it?
Stanton, a gaunt, owl-eyed presence who exuded a kind of hillbilly Zen, enlivened six decades of movies before he checked out at the age of 90 on Sept. 15. He’s one of the crew members in “Alien” (1979), a singing convict in “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), Molly Ringwald’s dad in “Pretty in Pink” (1986), the most nihilistic repo man ever in “Repo Man” (1984). His only previous starring role was as the prodigal husband wandering out of the desert in “Paris, Texas,” written by Sam Shepard and directed by Wim Wenders.
“Lucky” is directed by fellow character actor John Carroll Lynch (a familiar face maybe best known as the killer in “Zodiac”), and it gives Stanton one last seat in the sun. He plays the title character, an old man moping along in a tiny western town. Lucky smokes, cusses, is eccentric in all manner of ways small and large, and you slowly come to realize everyone in town adores him.
He has a little routine going with Joe (Barry Shabaka Henley), who runs the local diner: “Morning, Lucky.” “You’re nothing.” “You’re nothing.”
He astonishes the town doctor (Ed Begley Jr.) by simply surviving. (“It seems the older you get the longer you’re going to live.”) One shot finds Lucky kicking a tin can down the street just to prove he’s still capable. The next finds him walking in front of an old saloon that has been turned into a parking garage, and if that’s not the history of the modern western in a nutshell, tell me a better one.
There’s barely a wisp of plot in “Lucky,” only the anxiety that creeps over the title character as he senses the beginning of nightfall. Lucky is a self-proclaimed atheist, and he’s not about to cave under a little pressure, but the idea of no longer existing — of truly and finally being nothing — has him suddenly barking at friends. A chance encounter with a fellow WWII veteran (Tom Skerritt) brings up tales of horrors confronted and averted. (There’s a reason they called him Lucky.) He’s haunted by a minor sin from his childhood, and the appearance at the diner of a slick trust and estates lawyer (Ron Livingston) sends Lucky into a fury.
The movie is a true labor of love, with a screenplay tailored to its star by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja; the former has worked as Stanton’s assistant and can be seen in the pleasantly shaggy 2012 documentary “Harry Dean Stanton — Partly Fiction.” Lynch has cast it well, with an eye to half-forgotten performers and unforgettable faces (like Harry’s). The one-time teen idol James Darren plays the philosophical owner of the bar Lucky frequents, and David Lynch, who cast Stanton in a number of projects including the recently concluded “Twin Peaks: The Return,” appears as Lucky’s old friend Howard, distraught over the disappearance of his pet tortoise.
Moments of pure, sunlit grace abound. Lucky being visited by Loretta (Yvonne Huff), a young local who just wants to check up on him; they end up getting high and watching old Liberace videos. A wonderful scene at a Mexican boy’s birthday party where the old man bursts into a quavery, magical rendition of the Vicente Fernandez hit “Volver, Volver.” (Johnny Cash’s late-career “I See a Darkness” and a tune by the mutant cult folkie Michael Hurley also turn up; can we get a soundtrack album, please?)
“Lucky” turns a little sentimental toward the end, perhaps more sentimental than Stanton himself might allow; the actor seemed in touch with older mysteries than most of us know of. But the film is valuable for gently insisting on both the indignities and the dignity of old age, and it’s invaluable as a keepsake of a most individual screen presence. It is, simply, a lovely time at the movies.
Directed by John Carroll Lynch. Written by Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja. Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Shabaka Henley, James Darren, David Lynch. At Kendall Square. 88 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: salty language, ruminations on mortality).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.