David Lynch’s The Straight Story is a quietly old-fashioned masterpiece, a feel-good, down-home celebration of family loyalty, kindness to strangers, the ending of old quarrels, dignity in the face of weakness and frailty, determination, and the wisdom that comes with advanced years.
Sweetly gentle, luminously photographed, touchingly homespun, and so heartwarming it’d be corny if it weren’t so completely sincere, this is the kind of movie I’m tempted to say they don’t make any more, except I’m not sure they ever did make anything quite like this.
The simple tale is based on a real-life incident: In the fall of 1994, a 73-year-old Iowa resident named Alvin Straight learns that his brother Lyle has suffered a stroke. Alvin’s own health is none too good, and he and Lyle haven’t spoken in ten years, but Alvin is determined to make the 300-mile trip somehow and see his brother again. Unable to drive a car due to failing eyesight, Alvin lights upon a plan as audacious and ambitious as it is foolhardy: He will make the entire trip on his tractor-style lawnmower, with a hand-made trailer in tow for provisions and shelter. The rider mower has a top speed of about five miles an hour, and, naturally, wasn’t built either for road trips or for hauling trailers; but Alvin stubbornly sticks to his plan, even when his mower almost immediately breaks down and he has to buy another one.
An old man spending five autumn weeks driving through Iowa cornfields on a lawnmower offers little potential for edge-of-your-seat excitement; and to the film’s credit it doesn’t try to be something it’s not. The Straight Story is as unapologetically laid-back and slow-moving as Alvin’s rig; and as unique, as unassuming, as dignified, as charming, and as unforgettable. I must in fairness warn that some audiences may find it boring beyond endurance — particularly young children, individuals suffering from attention deficit disorder, and the sort of movie watcher who requires regularly spaced explosions, fisticuffs, car chases, or sex scenes to hold his attention. But to individuals who appreciate a film with an acute sense of character, place, and time, of simple pleasures and key moments in life, of the things that really matter in the end, it will be a rare treasure to be quietly savored and recommended to like-minded friends.
Richard Farnsworth, a retired stuntman turned character actor, was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance as Alvin Straight, a grizzled, bewhiskered old man who’s got his pride, his daughter Rose, and a lot of memories, good and bad. Rose (played with an utter lack of affectation by Sissy Spacek) seems to be mentally impaired and certainly has a speech impediment, and she worries about Alvin’s health. She prevails upon him — barely — to see a doctor; but once at the doctor’s office nothing will induce him to undress and don a gown, and he listens stolidly to the doctor intoning advice about his diet and health that Alvin has no intention of following. Alvin smokes cigars, but he doesn’t drink any more — though it’s not because of his health. Despite his problems, Alvin has achieved a sort of peace, or at least of acceptance. He can live with his mistakes and his frailty. The one thing that nags at him is his falling-out with his brother.
These things, and others, we learn about Alvin as we watch his personal odyssey and his interaction with the people he meets along the way. But more than that, we learn that this epic journey is only one episode in a long life that remains mostly opaque to us. Lynch has no intention of trying to "explain" what makes Alvin tick or of understanding him in any reductionistic way; of reducing a man to a motivation. We hear a few anecdotes about Alvin’s life, but nothing meant to make us say, "Aha — so that’s why…" The only "explanation" comes in the very last moments of the film, when we finally see for ourselves the point of Alvin’s determination to make the journey his own way; why he couldn’t accept a kind stranger’s offer to drive him the rest of the way. It’s an eminently satisfying moment.
Most films are shot out of order, according to production convenience, but The Straight Story was filmed chronologically, faithfully recreating Alvin’s road trip along the actual route the real Alvin Straight followed, in the same towns, at the same time of the year, and even in something like real time; so that the seasonal changes in the landscape, the harvest imagery, and even Richard Farnsworth’s increasingly scraggly whiskers are simply captured on film. Although there’s a lot of footage of the lawnmower puttering along with the trailer behind it, there’s always something new to look at.
Even more memorable are the various encounters Alvin has along the way. With one exception, these are all very ordinary people; and Alvin himself, though he’s doing an extraordinary thing, is an ordinary fellow as well, and there’s a prosaic, homely quality to these conversations. To those who approach him Alvin offers what hospitality he has; in a thoughtful touch, we see at one point that Alvin has a second chair in his rig for anyone who should happen to come along. He has some wisdom to offer, but nothing earthshaking: he doesn’t so much shed new light on things as put them in perspective. Other times, Alvin accepts the hospitality of others. The only thing he can’t accept is the offer of a ride. "You’re a kind man talking to a stubborn one," he tells one willing local; but there’s more to it than that. The whole movie’s that way.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.