H arry Dean Stanton, who died Sept. 15 at age 91, was an esteemed character actor who could play cantankerous or melancholy or plain idiosyncratic, all in unforgettable ways. It’s hard to imagine a better send-off for the gaunt-faced performer than “Lucky,’’ in which he portrays a Stantonesque codger living in a tiny desert town who must come to terms with his mortality.
The movie’s nonagenarian hero is named Lucky, but make no mistake about it — he is, in large measure, Stanton himself, and the film borrows from the actor’s life and career as it recounts Lucky’s unvarying daily routine, with glances at some of the bigger questions that confront us all.
Viewers who know Stanton’s extensive body of work — including “Paris, Texas’’ (one of his rare leading roles), the original “Repo Man,’’ “Wild at Heart’’ and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’’ (and other Westerns) — will have a ball spotting references. What others will make of “Lucky’’ I can’t even guess, although I imagine they will sense the deep respect for Stanton that motivated the participation of first-time director John Carroll Lynch, a character actor of some accomplishment, and a few other familiar names.
Lucky’s desert shack, style of dress and laconic affect all scream “cowboy,’’ and he is indeed a rugged individualist, albeit one whom advanced age has reduced to a fairly simple circuit of activities. He gets out of bed looking every day of his 90 years, does some stretches, strolls to the diner to drink coffee, wrestle with the crossword puzzle and engage in some terse conversation with the friendly proprietor (Barry Shabaka Henley).
On the way home, he stops for cigarettes and milk (which he seems to live on), spends the afternoon watching TV game shows, and at night toddles off to the tavern for a Bloody Maria and the companionship of the regulars (including the owner and her boyfriend, played with gusto by Beth Grant and James Darren). He’s a crusty old cuss, but he softens a bit when he encounters his best buddy, played by none other than David Lynch (no relation to “Lucky’s’’ director), who had cast Stanton in several films and considered the actor a dear friend.
Howard, Lynch’s character is thrown when his ancient pet tortoise, named President Roosevelt, wanders off among the cacti. Lynch is pretty good at this kind of drollery, and he’s not the only actor here who registers strongly in a smaller role: Others include Ron Livingston as a lawyer; Ed Begley Jr. as the doctor who examines Lucky after a mysterious fall; and Tom Skerritt as a veteran who swaps World War II stories with Lucky.
This is a film that takes its time, and why not? At his age, it’s a little late for our hero to be in a rush about anything, and even his doctor advises him not to bother giving up cigarettes. We are free to enjoy at leisure the movie’s many small delights, the most moving of which is when Lucky, unexpectedly attending the birthday party of a Mexican American boy, surprises everyone by rendering a beautiful song in Spanish. Stanton was a talented musician and singer.
A couple of other odd moments to savor: Lucky, seeking a crossword answer, reads a dictionary definition of “realism’’ that’s perfectly to the point. And listen as he plays “Red River Valley’’ on the harmonica. Either one is a great way to remember Harry Dean Stanton.