Walt Disney Pictures distributed this 1999 film by David Lynch, and that fact — along with G rating, a plot that centers around an old man riding a lawnmower across Iowa, and a certain amount of pigheaded snobbery on my part — are the reasons I never gave The Straight Story a chance. Surely, this couldn’t be the Lynch Lynch fans crave? Grave mistake.
First of all, the movie is marvelous to look at and really drives home what a loss it is that Lynch won’t work in 35mm again. I like INLAND EMPIRE better than most, and the low-grade DV does have its charms, but if you compare it to the pristine, every-frame-is-an-art-print visuals of this movie, you can only grumble.
Grumbling is something you won’t get from Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), the proud and stubborn 73-year-old who, after hearing that his estranged brother has suffered a stroke, decides that it’s time to reconcile. The brother’s in a hospital across the Wyoming state line, and Alvin can’t drive a car — in fact, he can barely walk or see, and he doesn’t want the help of his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek.) So he gets on his riding mower and heads east.
What follows is indeed a straight story, following the lines of the highway and the well-delineated demands of the hero’s journey (but then again, so does INLAND EMPIRE, if you know what to look for.) Alvin meets a runaway girl, a throng of bike riders zip by, and he almost gets killed going down a hill. The way the Oscar-nominated screenplay by John Roach and Mary Sweeney manages to wring meaning and humanity from the simplest situations is a masterclass in drama: one early scene had me biting my nails because Alvin, in the slipstream of a passing 18-wheeler, lost his hat. Talk about high-stakes adventure!
How much Lynch is in all this? Apart from the absolutely beautiful cinematography by Freddie Francis, devoted Lynchians will find the master’s fingerprints all over the details: Alvin’s reckless smoking and taste for strong coffee matches Lynch’s own. The clipped but profound and folksy dialogue sounds like it could’ve come straight from his mouth, the small towns all have more than their share of small town weirdos, and in the final scene, Lynch regular Harry Dean Stanton shows his rugged face.
The Straight Story doesn’t enter any of the surreal dream spaces we’ve come to associate with Lynch’s work, but it nonetheless succeeds in taking us into a unique world that follows its own rules. The performances by Spacek and Farnsworth are top-notch. Farnsworth became the oldest actor ever to get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor; he was ill with cancer during the shoot and took his life the following year. I’ll have to rewatch this soon because I suspect it may merit a fifth star.
The Straight Story. David Lynch, 1999. ****
YouTube has a great clip in which Alvin meets the Deer Woman (Barbara Robertson):