David Lynch threw quite a few people for a loop fifteen years ago, with his non-fiction adaptation “The Straight Story”. I count myself amongst that company. Mr. Lynch was coming off a roughly decade-and-a-half run that ushered in “Blue Velvet”, “Wild at Heart”, “Lost Highway”, the “Twin Peaks” television series, and its motion picture prequel “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me”. I admired all of those works, to varying degrees, but they do contain a certain commonality. Without fail, each creation–even the network television “Twin Peaks”–is filled to the brim with violent and sexual imagery. It was practically becoming a Lynch trademark. And, of course, “Eraserhead”, “The Elephant Man” and “Dune” had their fair share of the same. So, I believe it’s accurate to recall that many were stupefied into amazement, upon the announcement that David would be directing the story of Alvin Straight, a septuagenarian who traveled 240 miles on a lawn mower to visit his sick brother. The film would be rated ‘G’, and released by Walt Disney Pictures. The news was akin to waking up in an alternate universe. Could Lynch manage to pull this off?
History, of course, informs us that the answer was a resounding YES. A deceptively simple, resoundingly gentle folk tale, “The Straight Story” was met with nearly universal praise. It’s easily David’s most accessible work, not coincidentally because it remains his most atypical. The movie was the recipient of a slew of critics, festival, and industry award nominations in 1999, with the majority of kudos going to 79-year-old Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight. Mr. Farnsworth would win the Independent Spirit and the New York Film Critics Circle Best Actor Awards, and receive nominations for same from the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. It remains a beautiful, understated, yet commanding performance, made all the more tragic upon the news of Mr. Farnsworth’s death by a self-inflicted gunshot the following year (Farnsworth had been suffering from terminal cancer for quite some time). I don’t want to go as far as saying that Farnsworth should’ve taken the Oscar that year–all the nominated performances from 1999 were fine ones (google away). But he certainly could’ve won, with a minimum of protest. What a capper it would’ve been to a 60+ film career.
Alvin Straight (Mr. Farnsworth) is a 73-year-old, WWII veteran, in poor health, living a bare bones existence in a tiny, dilapidated house, with a sweet, caring, yet mentally challenged middle-aged daughter (a wonderful Sissy Spacek, in a performance I appreciated much more, on this recent re-watch). Alvin’s legs and hips are failing, and his doctor urges him to start using a walker after a recent fall–but the stubborn Mr. Straight vehemently refuses. Then, a late night phone call reveals that Alvin’s estranged brother Lyle (a very recognizable actor, who only appears in the final scene–so I don’t want to spoil it!), has suffered a major stroke. His poor health keeping him from getting issued a driver’s license, Alvin decides to set out to visit his sibling by setting out on a six-week odyssey via lawn mower–the only vehicle he can legally drive. Why not take a bus? Or have a friend drive him? Well, Alvin is a stubborn, determined old man, that likes to do things “his way”. In a journey that would be difficult to believe if it hadn’t actually occurred, Alvin sets out on the shoulder of highways and farmland local roads (pulling a small trailer filled with food and supplies), on a picturesque ride of remembrance and discovery. What he encounters, and the people he meets along the way, makes for a quietly riveting motion picture. And you’ll be amazed how Alvin continues to barely avoid getting himself killed!
I believe it’s unfair to have to judge him this way, but for the naysayers of David Lynch’s masterful talent–look no further than “The Straight Story”. Are you one of those people who consistently label Lynch’s work “bizarre” and/or “just plain weird”? Well, you can safely visit the family friendly “The Straight Story”, and revel in the complete absence of anything macabre or peculiar. Truth be told though, it tends to kind of irk me when people inform me that “The Straight Story” is the “only Lynch movie they like”. I’m happy that folks embrace it, and yet chagrined that they so easily dismiss his surrealistic triumphs. But “The Straight Story” is indeed quite good. In fact, it’s an even richer experience than I remembered, and Richard Farnsworth deserved every single superlative for his final screen performance. Alvin is a simple man–but no dummy. It’s fascinating to watch his handling of various issues, and edifying to listen to the homespun advice he spouts to those he meets on his unorthodox road trip. I was particularly touched by his “bundle of sticks” tale given to a runaway teenager. And shattered by his memories, when he joins a fellow veteran for a beer at a small town bar. I’ll agree if you observe that the set-ups and payoffs are almost ridiculously benevolent. It’s my one quibble too, but it barely detracts.
Lynch indeed employs a very straightforward style of direction with “The Straight Story”, but the skill and subtlety of his helming is undeniable. Working for the first time from a screenplay that he doesn’t have a hand in(John E. Roach, and frequent Lynch collaborator Mary Sweeney, co-authored the script), some of you may wonder if this film manages to be “Lynchian” in its execution. It certainly does, although it’s far more docile than his norm. The touches he brings to select dialogue scenes, as well as certain ones sans any speaking at all–are unmistakable. Watch the interaction of the squabbling, mower-repairing brothers. It’s got Lynch imprinted all over it. And Sissy Spacek is really wonderful here, as Alvin’s daughter, Rose. I recall finding her performance somewhat “showy” back in 1999. Fifteen years have supplied it with a multitude of grace. Freddie Francis cinematography is lovely, and Angelo Badalamenti delivers an appropriately haunting score. “The Straight Story” is filled with moments of redemption, and regret, with nostalgia, and determination. But most of all the desire of a brother to reunite with his ailing sibling, so they can maybe sit and chat under the stars–for maybe the final time. Roll on, Alvin Straight.
next month’s Lynch Ledger Entry: 2001’s “Mulholland Dr.”