(1999) Directed by David Lynch; Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; Starring: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek and Harry Dean Stanton;
Available formats: DVD
The G-rated, Disney-produced docudrama The Straight Story might just be David Lynch’s most shocking effort to date. It’s an unusual story, simply told, by a director who has made his career out of being unconventional. There are no nitrous oxide-inhaling sociopaths or mutant babies here; just an old man who wishes to visit his ailing brother. The middle-America setting is not unfamiliar to Lynch, but unlike some of his other films, none of the locals seem to possess an alternate agenda or lurid secrets hidden behind the modest white shuttered homes.
We begin with an aerial view of the rural town, slowly descending on the house where 73-year-old Alvin Straight lives. He is presented with a dilemma when he learns that his estranged brother Lyle has had a stroke. Alvin is losing his eyesight, unable to walk without canes, and suffering from what his doctor presumes to be emphysema. He may not have much time to live himself, but he decides that he must visit his brother who lives more than 200 miles away. He’s unable to drive a car due to his eyesight, and too independent to accept a ride from anyone. His ancient riding mower is the only choice left. The story would have seemed contrived, if not for the fact that the events actually occurred.
After his original mower dies, Alvin purchases a 1966 John Deere riding mower to embark on the improbable trek from his home in Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin. Richard Farnsworth is perfect in the role of Alvin Straight. Sadly, he was dying of cancer when this film was made, lending an element of veracity to his character that could never be as convincing if played by a different actor. Farnsworth manages to convey a brooding, melancholy tone as a man dealing with his own mortality, while confronting unfinished business in the most pragmatic way possible. We don’t feel artificial sentimentality for his character, but simply accept his situation as he does.
Straight lives with his middle-aged daughter, played by Sissy Spacek. We learn that her four children were taken away when she was deemed mentally unfit, although it is never made explicitly clear what her affliction is. She displays a stilted speech pattern and seems overly literal-minded, but possesses a keen eye for details. We don’t have the typical scene where she confronts her father about his foolhardy plan. There’s no tearful goodbye. It’s the only option left to him, and she shares his pragmatic outlook. Straight and his brother have not spoken in ten years, because of an alcohol-fueled argument that drove a wedge between their relationship, but this doesn’t matter now.
We’re subtly reminded that this is a David Lynch film by the small details, such as a tractor wheel turning round and round, or a shot of the starry night sky that lingers long enough for us to contemplate what’s up there. Lynch had a hand in the sound design, and it shows. Extra attention has been devoted to the sounds in the film, from a massive thunderclap to a crashing car, to a few strategically placed industrial noises. The sounds are immediate and jarring, reminding you of the power of nature or how quickly life can take an unexpected turn. Your home theater will actually get a brief workout in places. The score by frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet) gently accompanies the story, without attempting to overwhelm.
Straight’s mower progresses at a snail’s pace along the highway, and he notices things that most of us would normally take for granted, zipping along at 65 miles per hour. He confronts what we consciously avoid as we speed from one point to another, talking about the meaning of family to a pregnant runaway or witnessing the death of a deer on the road. The Straight Story has some of the earmarks of a classic road picture, without the usual banter between mismatched buddies or silly interludes. Most of Straight’s dialogue is internal, with the occasional stop along the road to process his thoughts with strangers. During one stopover, Straight pauses to talk to a group of young cyclists, commenting that the worst thing about being old was remembering what it was like to be young. He urges them to enjoy their youth, and not think about old age.
With many David Lynch films, it seems that there’s an underlying, impenetrable in-joke that maybe a select few truly grasp. Maybe the inherent joke with The Straight Story was that he could make a more-or-less “conventional” film, and that it took someone like Lynch to tell this story simply and without added embellishments or saccharine emotions. Lynch avoids the typical clichés that often make “true life” stories appear trite or manipulative. There are no throwaway pop songs to artificially boost the mood or swelling of the musical score to cue the audience into Straight’s personal triumphs or defeats. There are no requisite scenes of the residents of his home town glued to their TV screens, watching his progress as it’s conveniently chronicled by a local news team, or Straight’s tractor followed by a throng of cheering groupies and well-wishers. The subject material could have been alternately milked for laughs or sympathy, but Lynch hits the notes that matter in a film that transcends its genre with a meditation on old age, family responsibility and singular determination.