Straight Story, The
"I like to remember things my own way...not necessarily the way they happened."--Bill Pullman in David Lynch's 1997 feature "Lost Highway"
A great deal has changed since Lynch opened his surreal and disturbing "Lost Highway" in February 1997. Perhaps his most enigmatic picture to date (with the possible exception of his debut offering "Eraserhead"), "Lost Highway" took viewers through a blurred and dizzying labyrinth of treachery, murder, mistaken identity and the unnerving image of Robert Blake in clown face without eye brows.
The filmmaker was already a sort of cinematic legend however, writing and directing such disquieting epics as "Blue Velvet" (1984), "Wild at Heart" (1990) and the TV series-inspired "Twin Peaks--Fire Walk With Me." Heralded by many as a visionary with a gifted eye to unearth the dark treachery lurking beneath the surface in everyday Americana, the filmmaker has also earned a good deal of wrath from noted film critics (most notably, Roger Ebert).
It is because of all this that many have held their collective breaths in baited anticipation for Lynch's much-touted G-rated Disney feature "The Straight Story." Based on the story of Alvin Straight, an elderly Iowa farmer who sets off on his John Deere lawnmower to visit his ailing brother in Wisconsin, Lynch has captured the essence of everything critics have tried to praise him for--without the brutality, kinky sex or outright weirdness that has alienated a segment of the film going community.
Richard Farnsworth stars as Alvin Straight, a stubborn, albeit amiable older gentleman with poor vision, bad hips and a stubborn dislike for doctors and handouts of any kind. Living with his daughter (Sissy Spacek) in a small Iowa town, the word comes down that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a massive stroke. With no driver's license and his daughter incapable of transporting him to Wisconsin, Alvin decides he has no choice but to set out on his lawn tractor--regardless of time or hassle.
What follows is a road journey like none other. With scores of sweeping visuals by Freddie Francis ("Glory"), Lynch takes his sweet time moving Alvin across the states. Along the way, he meets a wide range of interesting people--ranging from a pregnant runaway, to an unlucky motorist to a couple who puts him up when his mower blows a belt.
What really makes Alvin's journey so captivating is seeing the goodness of strangers rise through their connection to the traveling man. It is almost as if people long to connect with others but simply need some pushing to get there. In Alvin's personable presence, people are almost instantly disarmed and open to compassion.
Among the film's many impactful moments is a barstool conversation between Alvin and a fellow World War II veteran. As the two relive some excruciating moments they encountered, we see a bond that transcends time and location. More than 50 years later, the two are still deeply affected by events so far beyond their control.
In creating "The Straight Story," Lynch has proven beyond doubt his gift for storytelling. While many have had a tough time getting through the strange and twisted elements that inhabit the bulk of his work, those who have will not be surprised to see such a soft and tender aspect to his craft. Even in "Blue Velvet," arguably the director's most controversial work, we are continually reminded that beyond the evil that men do, there are blue skies, flowers blowing in the wind and places where firemen still ride through town with stoic Dalmatians in tow.
"The Straight Story" is a beautiful film, content to let the simple nature of its story speak for itself. With very few plot changes occurring between Alvin's start and conclusion, the viewer is left to experience life at the slow and deliberate pace that comes with perspective and age. Though there is no guarantee that Lyle will even be alive by the time Alvin reaches him, he still refuses to be driven by his kindly new friends. Instead, he calls himself a "stubborn" old man who is going to see his journey through the way he intended.
Lynch's desire to present Alvin's story in such a stark and simplistic manner only magnifies the strength of his filmmaking. Should he immediately return his lens to dancing dwarfs, incestuous love affairs, the occasional six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon or a "Candy Colored Clown They Call the Sandman," David Lynch has shown, without reservation, his ability to handle a project requiring love, dedication and sympathy.
* MPAA rating: G.
'The Straight Story'
Richard Farnsworth: Alvin Straight
Sissy Spacek: Rose Straight
Harry Dean Stanton: Lyle Straight
Released by Buena Vista Pictures. Director David Lynch. Producers Mary Sweeney, Neal Edelstein. Executive producers Pierre Edelman, Michael Polaire. Screenplay John Roach & Mary Sweeney. Cinematographer Freddie Francis. Editor Mary Sweeney. Costumes Patricia Norris. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Production design Jack Fisk. Set decorator Barbara Haberecht. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.