The Straight Story
directed by David Lynch
(Walt Disney/Buena Vista, 1999)

As gentle as the rolling hills of Iowa where it was filmed, The Straight Story is a small, quiet gem in the midst of a summer blockbuster season. It's a simple enough tale: After his estranged brother Lyle has a stroke, elderly Alvin Straight decides to visit his brother in Wisconsin before it's too late. Problem is, his eyesight is failing, along with just about everything else, he has no driver's license and he doesn't want other people driving him. So he buys some gas, WD-40s his trusty riding mower, hops on and heads out on the open country roads for one last journey.

It's based on a true story. And director David Lynch, most known for darker, more bizarre films like Lost Highway and TV's Twin Peaks, handles that truth with a loving respect. He illuminates Alvin's story with a sly midwestern humor that realizes we often don't realize the quirkiness, or the simple beauties, around us.

And Lynch, along with screenwriters John Roach and Mary Sweeney, is smart enough to know Alvin's journey is about far, far more than getting him from Iowa to Wisconsin. They've turned Straight Story into a powerful meditation on family, on the pains of getting old, on the way we treat others and on our need to forgive -- not only others, but also ourselves.

There are some wonderful twisted Lynchian moments: a woman whose car seems to be a magnet for the highway crossings of deer, a wild downhill lawnmower ride right into the local fire company's controlled-burn practice, a mysterious slamming noise within the film's first few minutes that's not what you think it is. But they never overpower the movie. They're things that can happen to us, or to people we know, and we shake our heads and say, "Can you believe that?"

Richard Farnsworth, as Alvin, is nothing short of astonishing. After 40-plus years of westerns, the former stuntman isn't trying to pretend he's anything but the 80 years old he is this year. Whole minutes pass without dialogue, depending simply on Farnsworth's reactions to his surroundings to hold our attention. It's captivating.

An early scene of Alvin's doctor visit gives us an idea of his strength of character. He's faced with the strangeness of the medical equipment, the doctor's advice to make serious changes or there will be serious consequences, the ludicrous paper gown. And Farnsworth's face registers every nuance of fear, restlessness, discomfort and anger at the indignities that can come with being old. He leaves the doctor, and promptly lights up one of the Swisher Sweets he keeps in a dog-eared carton in the breast pocket of his plaid flannel shirt.

Serious changes or serious consequences? He's made it through a hard life to old age doing things his way, by God, and he intends to keep doing things just like that.

Every detail -- the rush of the town's grain elevator during harvest season, the bypassed Main Street empty but for farm dogs, the laundry flapping on clotheslines, the small-town hardware store hangout, the way Alvin dispatches his riding mower when it "dies" -- is a nod to the endurance of small towns, the foibles of the people we love. It's woven together by Angelo Badalamenti's score, an elegiac effort that matches the movie's unhurried pace.

You won't soon forget Farnsworth's performance, nor that of Sissy Spacek, who is his daughter, Rose, nor Harry Dean Stanton. As Alvin's brother Lyle, he somehow puts more life into his briefest of appearances than you will find in hours of blockbuster mania. The single scene Farnsworth and Stanton have together is a moment of clarity and peace that, alone, makes The Straight Story a gift of a film.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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