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  • Lucky moves — and moves us — on two levels, the personal and the thematic.
    Our visceral experience is of Harry Dean Stanton’s valedictory. He died shortly after completing this work. Across a career of (IMDB says:) 200 film/tv roles, he fashioned the persona of a stoic, weather-pounded and beaten survivor. He had — nope, has — one of the most lived-in faces and starved bodies in American cinema. His role in Big Love was one of the few which let him wield power. But that role apart, moral authority he always had.
    So when Stanton at 91 plays the 90-year-old veteran living out his last solitary days in a desert town, Stanton is living out his last days too. He’s telling us he feels Lucky — lucky even to be living this reduced hard-scramble life, lucky to have stumbled into that long and rich career, lucky even to be moving towards his — our —unpromising end.
    The film’s major themes centre on two phrases. One is the definition of “realism” that Lucky seizes upon: It’s a “thing,” the ability to see things as they are and to learn to live with that. When he describes realism and then freedom as “a thing” he blurs the line between the material and the abstract. There is no abstract beyond our physical existence.
    As an atheist, Lucky has no afterlife to worry about, nor any judge to whom to hold himself ultimately accountable. He is free to do what he wants and to accept only what responsibility he chooses. He chooses when and when not to light up a cigarette in a no-smoking area.
    The second phrase is the fall that gives Lucky his first intimation of mortality. He literally falls. But in a broader sense, Lucky is postlapsarian man. Adam’s fall left mankind mortal and alienated. The harsh desert landscape here is relieved solely by the plush garden/oasis of Eve’s, the fancy dining spot from which chef Lucky was fired for toking up in the kitchen. That’s weed as the Forbidden Fruit.
    Whenever Lucky passes that garden he spits the misogynous c-epithet at it. But not the last time. The last time he passes it without resenting his expulsion, his alienation. Perhaps that shows his response to some particular episodes of community. In his daily morning coffee shop, he chats with a fellow WW II vet. He also engages with an irritating insurance agent Lucky earlier challenged to a fight over this predatory job.
    Two key scenes involve his engagement with women. The black waitress drops by to check on him and they share a joint, then a hug. The corner store owner invites him to her five-year-old son’s fifth birthday party, where Lucky to everyone’s surprise breaks out in a warm, gravelly Spanish song. After these scenes, he doesn’t resent Eve’s any more, because his community on earth is the only Eden we can expect. That we need to enjoy.
    At first Harry lives days of unthinking ritual. He buys the daily quart of milk even though he still has two in the fridge — and little else. He mechanically lights up and tosses cigarettes because he has outlived their threat to his health. He swaps barbs with the coffee shop staff and regulars. He paces out the desert.
    The two scenes with the women restore his sense of genuine community, recover his awareness of the richness of life — even at this reduction, in the arid land and aging.
    So here is Lucky living out his last days, sharply attuned to seizing the present riches — such as they are — because there is no beyond to diminish them. If there is a faith to be had then it’s in what we find on earth, not in anything supposedly beyond. In two scenes he talks on his red phone to some man — whom, we never learn. That’s a parody of speaking to someone supposedly in the beyond, of uncertain existence. That’s where he learns his “realism” — from the implied absence at the other end of the line.
    Lucky here recovers his faith in the people around him, the friendly and accepting community. If there is any justice or reward it will have to be here on earth, nowhere else. That may dishearten the conventionally faithful but it should hearten the rest.
    And once we accept the limits on our existence, the futility of our attempts to control what lies beyond us, once the only “things” we need are that “realism” and “freedom,” that’s when we can get the most out of life.
    After all, once the other man gave up his hopes for finding his escaped tortoise, once he sat back and accepted his fate, that’s when the tortoise came back. That’s the “new deal” that President Roosevelt (that tortoise) here represents.

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