If Harry Dean Stanton had lived to star in another film, would his performance in Lucky still seem so extraordinary? Probably - it's not like Stanton got all that many starring roles in his career, and it's also not like he was in the habit of being anything less than extraordinary in his many supporting parts. And if ever an actor was handed a role calculated to allow him to do everything he is best at, Stanton was given such a gift by screenwriters Logan Sparks and Drago Sumonja. The movie's 90-year-old protagonist was self-evidently written for the actor; the first-time screenwriters have helpfully confirmed that fact, but it really didn't need doing. Everything that Stanton's screen persona has solidified into over his career is present in this role; Stanton is the movie (I mean, fuck it, the film's end credits are even scored with what amounts to "Harry Dean Stanton Is a Goddamn Treasure: The Song", written and performed by a fella named Foster Timms).

So, let me dive right on into the grumpy part: it's good for the movie that Stanton is so good, because there's just not a damn thing otherwise. Lucky depicts a small series of events in a tiny desert town (the town is from California, the desert from Arizona), in which Lucky himself is confronted with his own age - not necessarily his own "mortality", though it's obvious that the two things go hand-in-hand - and reacts with thoughtful philosophical inquiry, but also with a blunt, "I'm too old to be remotely polite" mien. It's aggressively simple, and in every register it feels like it came out of an indie film automat: the style leans towards long, still shots that vibrate almost imperceptibly from being handheld; the characters are all "colorful" in the most scare-quotesy way possible; the philosophical musings are unbelievably straightforward and literal. At one point, Lucky reads the first definition of "realism" out loud from the dictionary (accepting a situation as it really is). Then he immediately reads out the second (representing a person or thing as accurately as possible). And he then goes to a bar, where he recites the first definition twice. It is not a film that's interested in any possibility that you might miss out on what's happening in the writing.

And then along comes Stanton, and he takes this rather blunt dialogue by self-evident first-timers, and the film's crystal-clear attempt to Say Something about aging with intellectual dignity, but not a whisper of graceful dramaturgy, and he makes it fucking poetry. I don't even know how to quantify this: either it's the year's single best screen performance and there's not even a trace of competition for that title, or it doesn't count as "acting" because the film basically throws its hands up and says, "look, can you just Harry Dean Stanton it up for the next 88 minutes", and Harry Dean Stanton does so. Either way, we get the holy and sacred gift of watching one of America's all-time most interesting character actors simply going about the business of inhabiting the space before the camera for the length of a whole feature film, with first-time director John Carroll Lynch (himself a character actor of no little talent) basically acting as a street sweeper to keep everything out of Stanton's way.

And damned if it isn't wonderful. It's a bit like a series of exercises, maybe: here's the scene where Stanton does yoga and shows his shirtless body to confront us all unglamorously and unromantically with the sags, wrinkles, spots and tendons of age; here's the scene where Stanton gets to curse a lot; here's the scene where Stanton has to exude overwhelming, inexplicable happiness just using his eyes; here's the scene where Stanton sings in Spanish with a much stronger voice than one might expect, though off-key. Though they're all exercises that the actor blows past, making everyone of them look easy. The great triumph is the film is that, for all that Lucky is the apotheosis of Harry Dean Stanton's career, it never feels like we're watching the actor rather than the character, and that's true in even the tiniest little details, like the way Lucky handles his chunky red phone while watching game shows, or his labored but sincere attempts to be polite when the woman at the convenience store talks about her son.

All of this is in service to the most obvious possible payoff: look, this what being old is like! It's about creating routines that you find as boring as everybody else, just because you don't have the capacity to work outside of a routine; it's about moving slowly and methodically; it's about being impatient because the parts of your brain that control patience have all withered away. And, I mean, sure. Neither those insights, nor Lucky's irritable, nonogenerian atheist insights into the essential unfairness and arbitrariness of the human condition, are in any way new. It is not what the film says that gives it value, but how it gets said, filtered through Stanton's hushed, dry performance.

It's enjoyable enough, for all that: the film is slow but it doesn't dither (88 minutes is pretty close to the platonic ideal of a running time for this kind of movie), and it has a surprisingly robust optimism and sense of humor for a film about how Harry Dean Stanton is old as hell and John Carroll Lynch wanted to to pay tribute to him before he died. The film has packed itself with an excellent array of character actors, including Beth Grant, Ed Begley Jr, James Darren, Barry Shabaka Henley, Ron Livingston, Tom Skerritt, and Stanton's frequent director David Lynch (who brings great restraint, warmth, and humanity to the part of a dotty old man who wants to leave his belongings to his pet tortoise), and they flesh out Lucky's community beautifully. Each of them gets at least one big scene, taking center stage for long enough for the actor in question to give us an entire film's worth of character without pulling focus from Lucky, and without Stanton doing anything to try to pull focus from them.

It's a deeply human film, which makes a kind of sense; directed by a character actor, populated by character actors, and designed almost entirely as a love letter and affectionate good-bye to one of the most legendary character actors of all (even if they didn't "know" that Stanton was dying when they made the film, there are too many moments, especially the ending, where it's clearly built as a swan song, and not even the fact that Stanton has one last posthumous supporting role still to come changes that). And who knows more about the way to quickly, efficiently put rich humanity into a movie than character actors? Nothing about Lucky is surprising, and nothing about it is "special" other than the fact that it's been a helluva long 33 years since Paris, Texas. But it is warm and lovely despite being bleak and prickly, and though I cannot imagine it changing anybody's life, it at least makes life noticeably more satisfying for an hour and a half.