"When I come on screen...You see whatever he's suppose to be playing. You know...and that's the gift...You can't teach that." - M. Emmet Walsh.
Although that was a memorable outlier Stanton more or less returned to the world of the character actor, remaining one of the all time greats in that regard, and always a welcome sight whenever his scraggly face would come onscreen. Before his passing though we were granted one last time with Stanton at the center of the spotlight through fellow character actor John Carroll Lynch's cinematic love letter to the actor in Lucky. The film proudly displaying the man in the lead as playing the titular role of one Lucky a man of Stanton's age making his way through life in a small town in the desert. A modest film in nature, and fitting to the nature of Stanton who needs no more than that to deliver a performance that could be only from the man himself as Lucky shares much in common with the actor that only seems to make this performance all the more special. Stanton comes on the screen in the way that defines Stanton as he is compelling just in his singular way of lighting his cigarettes while walking across the sandy sidewalks of the town like an old tumbleweed making its rounds. There is something inherently fascinating in Stanton as this unique performer who simply is well fascinating in himself. We see Lucky, we see him walking, and he already has more character than hundred disposable caricatures from most films. Stanton represents seemingly the very idea of life in his worn expressions, and just that gait that is Stanton's personal stride as he makes his way in his own damn time, thank you very much.
His nights all lead to the same place a bar called Elaine's filled with its own color and not just the bloody Marys that Lucky prefers in his choice of drink. Lucky seems there just as much for the conversation as he waxes on one of his crossword answers, realism. Stanton's particular delivery of the examination of the word by Lucky is a marvelous bit of idiosyncrasy that could only be offered by Stanton's particular way with words. He captures this philosophical emphasis on the idea of looking at things as they are, and in Stanton's eyes there is a man pondering what exactly it means to see things completely clearly. All the same simply in his way with the words itself has a smoothness that is pure Stanton and just wonderful to hear him ponder away on "what you see is not what I get". In every interaction in this bar though there is that distinct life that is Stanton in every little exchange whether it be with the bartender, the tough as nails bar owner Elaine (Beth Grant), or her longtime companion Paulie (James Darren) you can feel the years really of Lucky passing the time with this most unusual crowd. The most notable of them being Howard played by David Lynch, and though we were just talking about realism it seems surrealism follows the director where ever he may wish to traverse. Stanton and Lynch were frequent collaborators in the directors own work, and seemingly the camaraderie of that experience shines right through the screen as old Lucky so genuinely offers comfort for Howard and his loss of his old tortoise, President Roosevelt, who "ran" away.
I will admit that I probably could watch a whole film of just Harry Dean Stanton hanging out at Elaine's and engaging in just a few conversations. There is that vividness of his performance that just grants such a pleasure to watch this man who has such abundance of experience exuding from his very being. The film grants us more though as Lucky has a fall that perhaps changes what realism means to the old timer. This is initiated through a most fascinating and most humorous meeting with his doctor (Ed Begley Jr.), who can't do anything for Lucky but to suggest he keep living while while also suggesting he reflect on his age. Stanton's blend of sardonic asides with a bit of genuine confusion at the most unusual advice of the doctor is but a little gem of a scene. Stanton finding this exasperation in the explanation of his situation, yet a more serious curiosity in the doctor's suggestions that he can't do anything for him that wouldn't hurt him, placing Lucky in a state being as old with nothing he can do about it. This is right down to the idea that he might as well smoke since it hasn't harmed him at this point in his life. Stanton from his moment though creates this sense of introspection in Lucky as he must now examine what it is to be his age, and what it is to have lived the life he has lived. Lucky maintains more or less his routine, but Stanton shows that it is no longer in more or less the same way. There is now a different type of contemplation not of discovery of a word like realism, but rather facing the idea of realism in the examination of life and death.
It is the way that Stanton breaths truth into every word though that has defined his career in a way, and helps to define this performance. Stanton finds what there is in the past and summons it towards the center while he so effortlessly brings us this state of Lucky nearly stuck in this unease. This can be more tumultuous as found when Lucky tells the story of having accidentally killed a mockingbird due to his inaccurate BB gun. Stanton in his eyes and his delivery of these words brings us to this point in his life in heartbreaking detail. He fashions the vividness of the event in his mind of just a boy losing all joy of a moment in this loss of life that led to only a silence. This idea of silence though is what Stanton attaches Lucky's sad state to, although even this is wonderful in the way he doesn't allow it to artificially overwhelm his work, but rather so naturally turns it into this recurring thought. The silence makes the mind ponder his past mistakes, even as simple as mistreating Liberace in his mind, and Stanton's performance conveys this sense chagrin towards the foolishness of youth as it places him in this uncertain future. The one moment of a real breakdown is so modestly yet powerfully realized in Stanton's somber cry of "I'm scared" that reflects this state of Lucky who is temporarily caught up in his own feelings of self doubt and pondering what is to be both alive and what it means to eventually die.
As notable as Stanton's work is when he is the focus, as also typical to Stanton, his work never stops even when he is simply listening to some else. Stanton always creates this awareness that again is of a man taking what their saying not waiting simply for his next line. This is essential within his work though in Lucky's journey isn't a descent but rather uplifting in the end. This seemingly begins when he is able to explore the idea of a mortality with a much younger man, and a man he just so brazenly disrespected in ole Bobby Lawrence esq. Stanton is wonderful in every word of the man's own story of near death he takes in and within his eyes there is this growing appreciation not only for the man, but also this idea that he's not the only one who need to contemplate death nor need he contemplate it as a stark sorrow. One of the best moments in this film comes when Lucky spots a fellow veteran in the form of old Alien co-star Tom Skerritt. This scene is pure beauty though in the two old timers coming together as Skerritt and Stanton find such a warming pleasant chemistry that they realize so perfectly in their war tales. Lucky's tale as a cook on a naval ship, a history he shares with the real life Stanton, Stanton finds the appreciation for the past again in his more pleasant tale of the war of avoiding potential death. Skerritt's is far more heart wrenching as he describes a Japanese little girl's smile while believing she is embracing death, while it his moment as intended, Stanton naturally knows when to support and when to lead. His work stays quiet, and I don't mean because he doesn't speak, but he truly supports Skerrit's work by in every moment so clearly reflecting the meaning of every word in Lucky's mind that makes the scene all the more affecting.