With their UK Blu-Ray and DVD release of Harry Dean Stanton’s swan song, Lucky, Eureka are packaging it with the documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction as a bonus. I figured it was worth more than just a passing mention at the bottom here, so I’m going to review both films.
Director: John Carroll Lynch
Screenplay: Logan Sparks, Drago Sumonja
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr, Tom Skerritt, Barry Shabaka Henley, Beth Grant, James Darren
Running Time: 88 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Harry Dean Stanton was somewhat of an acting legend. He never won an Oscar and rarely played the lead role in a film, despite racking up around 200 credits (according to the IMDb). However, he was always a memorable presence and nailed each character without seeming to try too hard. He wasn’t a grandstanding actor who played it big and wasn’t necessarily an unrecognisable chameleon who lost himself in a role. Instead, he often played hard-to-pin-down ‘Harry Dean Stanton-esque’ characters, but he was so good at it and so captivating to watch he became one of the most reliable actors around for several decades. When he died last year, the film-loving community was devastated and felt it had lost a true one-of-a-kind personality. He was at the ripe old age of 91 though, so it was hardly unexpected, and luckily, for fans of the actor, he left us with one last rare starring role, the title character in Lucky, which was written specifically for him.
The 90-year old Lucky is enjoying his routine existence in a small desert town in California. He has a good rapport with his neighbours (including David Lynch, Barry Shabaka Henley, Beth Grant and James Darren) sharing philosophies on life and working on his crossword puzzles as he runs through his regular visits to the local cafe, shop and bar. However, one morning he gets light-headed and falls. He visits his long-time doctor (Ed Begley Jr), who tells him there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with him other than the fact that he’s getting old. His doctor said he’s in the unique position of knowing he’s approaching the end but having the relative good health and mental capacity to get things in order and reflect on life as it draws to a close.
This does not comfort Lucky though, who’s terrified of dying. This, and some other small changes to his regular day disrupt his comfortable existence and he begins to question his beliefs. It seems unlikely that he’ll lose his atheist stance on spirituality, but he wonders whether it was a good idea to be so cut off, never allowing anyone to get truly close to him. So we see him talk to some of friends and strangers around town as he attempts to become at peace with what lies ahead.
It’s rather a philosophical film and much of its run-time consists of characters discussing personal theories on life and death. This is generally a big turn-off for me. Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of films that openly discuss their philosophical themes through lengthy monologues and duologues. I don’t mind philosophical content in films, but prefer ideas to be explored metaphorically through the story or visuals, rather than listening to uncinematic conversations. The approach worked here for me though, for the most part. I think this is largely down to the ideas feeling more homespun and down-to-Earth. The conversations aren’t as lofty and studious as some of the worst offenders in the type of navel-gazing cinema I detest. The downside to this is that the conclusion Lucky draws at the end of the film feels a little twee and quite slight considering the perceived weight of the film’s theme. I guess that’s the point of the final message though, to smile, enjoy what you have, carry on and let death come when it comes. A cliched thought perhaps, but one that’s hard to argue with.
The film’s direction, however, is fairly bland and uninspiring. This was John Carroll Lynch’s debut behind the camera. He’s an actor first and foremost and is best known, to me at least, as Norm ‘Son of a’ Gunderson in Fargo and Arthur Leigh Allen in Zodiac. Being an actor rather than a director, he’s a good choice though for what is essentially quite a dialogue-heavy, stagey and performance-driven film. There are one or two visually interesting moments though, most notably a strange dream sequence where a friend of Lucky’s seems to disappear, leading him towards a neon-lit nightclub back entrance.
Stanton, as you might expect in a role written for him, is excellent. He exudes pathos, yet retains an enigmatic quality and likeable stubbornness. Although he shares one or two traits of the stereotypical curmudgeonly old man, he’s largely a unique and rich character.
I found the supporting players a bit hit and miss though. David Lynch, in particular, is rather stilted. That style might fit some of his films, but he stands out here and his line delivery feels awkward, although his character has some nice moments. Some of the other characters are a little bland and stereotypical too, although one or two match up to Stanton, such as Tom Skerritt and Ed Begley Jr. who impress in small but vital roles.
Like life then, Lucky hits a few stumbling blocks along the way, but it’s largely a warm and thoughtful meditation on life. I’m not sure it has a great deal to actually say on the matter, but it effectively provides a warm and satisfying conclusion. I was worried Lucky would find God (I’m a devout atheist too), but instead, he finds peace on his own terms. It’s a wonderfully fitting swan song for Stanton and he’s the main reason to see it.
Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
Director: Sophie Huber
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Sam Shepard, Kris Kristofferson, Wim Wenders, Debbie Harry
Country: USA, Switzerland
Running Time: 77 min
Sophie Huber’s documentary mixes footage of Harry Dean Stanton speaking about his life and visiting his local haunts with thoughts from some of his close friends and colleagues, as well as clips from some of his most notable films (particularly the great Paris, Texas).
It sounds like a recipe for your average movie-star love-in, but thankfully it isn’t. This is partly due to Stanton’s enigmatic presence and his refusal to open up totally for the camera, as well as Huber’s laid-back artful style. Cutting between grainy, often neon-lit colour and high contrast black and white, the photography is very attractive and sets a fitting atmosphere for a celebration of the weathered look and earthy poetry of its subject.
Stanton’s closed-off approach means you don’t learn much about his life, so those looking for a straight-up biography will be disappointed. However, the film does a great job of capturing on film what makes the man so special. It also makes you realise just how closely much of Stanton’s character in Lucky was modelled on him. You hear the actor spout off a number of similar philosophies to those he recounts in Lucky, particularly his belief that he is “nothing” and his fear of death. Like in that film, Stanton also never married or had any children (that he knew were definitely his and spent any time with at least), so the deeply personal nature of Lucky shines through after watching this documentary.
The other contributors, which include well-known names and faces such as David Lynch, Sam Shepard, Kris Kristofferson, Wim Wenders and Debbie Harry, tend to provide more ‘facts’ about Stanton through discussing their time together. A number of these interviews take part with Stanton sat by them, so there’s a warmth to the recollections to counter the idea that he had a completely lonely existence. This style, along with the scenes in Stanton’s local bar, give a ‘hanging out’ quality to the film that I very much appreciated.
We also hear much about Stanton’s love for music. We’re told that his heart was “into music more than anything else” and he regretted not pursuing that as a career instead of acting. The film celebrates this love by having Stanton perform a number of songs to the camera. These sequences are intoxicating to watch. He’s got a well-aged voice with as much character as you’d imagine from his acting. These moments allow Stanton to open up in a way too. He seems so at peace when he sings and plays the guitar. It made me rush upstairs to play my piano as soon as the film finished.
Overall then, it’s a unique, beautiful and bewitching portrait of a Hollywood enigma. It maybe doesn’t tell you much about what he did or why, but it offers brief glimpses of his soul through his music and relationships with old friends. It makes a great companion piece to Lucky and should be viewed as that, rather than a ‘special feature’. It was good thinking on Eureka’s part to pair the two together.
Lucky is out on 12th November on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka. I watched the Blu-Ray version and it looks and sounds great.
You get a few special features too:
– Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction – Sophie Huber’s acclaimed 2012 documentary is an impressionistic portrait of the iconic actor, and includes candid scenes with Stanton, David Lynch, Wim Wenders, Kris Kristofferson and Debbie Harry
– Interview with director John Carroll Lynch
– Interview with writers/producers Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja
– PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by Jason Wood, exclusive behind-the-scenes stills, Headin’ North at 110 per. – A personal memory of Harry Dean Stanton by co-writer Logan Sparks and the transcript of a Q&A with director John Carroll Lynch
Obviously Partly Fiction is the standout if you see it as an extra, but the two interviews are strong too. Sparks and Sumonja clearly have a great amount of respect and love for Stanton, which is touching to hear about and John Carroll Lynch goes into reasonable detail about how he came to be involved in the project and how it was put together. Likewise, the booklet has them all contributing again, so all your bases are well covered.