The Straight Story
A Midwestern OdysseyBy Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by David Lynch
Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney
With Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek
Take a great story: in 1994, the seventy-three year old Alvin Straight rode a 1966 John Deere lawnmower from Laurens, Iowa all the way to Mount Zion, Wisconsin to see his ailing brother. Combine this story with the one of the directors least expected to tackle it: the twisted maestro David Lynch. The result: a rather amazing film, especially considering Lynch’s prior works (Twin Peaks, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) and the fact that The Straight Story is rated G and released under the banner of Walt Disney.
Lynch isn’t the first filmmaker who, after becoming notorious for his dark worldview, reached a new level of creative maturity by making a G rated movie based on a true story. The result is a remarkable movie, assured and unhurried, yet full of action (internal as well as external), that is amazingly beautiful to look at, and frequently emotionally affecting to the point of being mesmerizing.
There’s really very little to the story that I didn’t mention above. Alvin Straight is 73; he has a bad back, so he has to walk with two canes; his vision is so poor he can’t drive; and his ambition is great enough to lead him on his incredible journey. After learning that his estranged brother had suffered a stroke, Straight builds a trailer, hooks it up to the back of his riding lawnmower, and starts on a six hundred mile journey.
His journey -- at least, its film counterpart -- is an odyssey, a pilgrim’s progress, and it owes as much to Homer and John Bunyan as it does to the factual events. There’s a directness to Lynch’s film, symbolized by the endless stretches of midwestern highway. This is clearly a result of the careful whittling of the central story from its messier real-life conterpart. The result is simple -- but not simplistic, with at least four story lines running parallel through the movie, adding heft and impact to each other. There’s the road movie -- Alvin’s physical progress from point A to point B -- along with his emotional journey to reach an understanding necessary to make his journey complete. The film also retells the story of the protagonist’s life in carefully measured increments and the story of the Midwest during the harvest --nature moving from growth to maturity.
The The Straight Story works as beautifully as it does is mostly because of two people. One of them is veteran actor Richard Farnsworth, who plays Straight as one of the most naturalistically flawless portrayals in recent memory. It’s definitely not a showy performance; but it possesses an amazing texture, and it’s impossible to take one’s eyes off him. By the way, Farnsworth himself also walks with two canes, so his character’s physical condition is not acted -- it’s real.
The second person is, of course, David Lynch, whose direction here is nothing short of remarkable. The pacing is assured and leisurely, yet the film feels anything but slow, with something happening in just about every shot. Some shots (the opening passage through the starry sky, the elaborate crane shot that introduces Straight without actually showing him, the sudden cut to the dark gothic view of a grain elevator) are startlingly effective. Even when he’s working in the realm of a coffee-table picture book (you know, America the Beautiful, amber waves of grain, etc.), Lynch manages to remind why the images like these became cliches in the first place: because the waves of grain are, indeed, beautiful.
Sissy Spacek, in a supporting part as Straight’s daughter is also quite remarkable.
Oh, and did I mention that this film is really very funny? The film, especially in its first half, consistently made me laugh out loud. In this aspect, The Straight Story somewhat resembles Fargo in its ability to both be sympathetic to the Midwesterners’ behavior and make it humorous; on the other hand, it has more emotional heft, because there’s real substance behind the humor. As a mater of fact, I’m surprised Disney doesn’t advertise this one as a comedy; it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
There’s one problem with The Straight Story, and I wish this was the problem with most movies: sometimes, it’s too meaningful. I understand why almost every encounter Straight has on his journey ends with a moral. All of these have a relation with the film’s subtext (strength of family), and each of them provides a mini-catharsis. But a good deal of them feel a touch too neat, and sometimes I wished for a scene which I could enjoy on its own, without having its meaning spelled out for me. Still, this is a rather minor quibble, especially considering the general lack of meaning in most modern films. Compared to them, The Straight Story manages to be, in its small and measured way, rather momentous.