The Straight Story (1999)

The Straight StoryStarring: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Jane Heitz, Everett McGill, Jennifer Edwards, Barbara E. Robertston, John Farley, John Lordan, Harry Dean Stanton.
Written by Mary Sweeney & John Roach, based on a true story.
Directed by David Lynch.

Grade: A

Review by Dana Knowles.

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) is a character we recognize instantly when we see him. He's a good-hearted old coot, living a placid life in a small town in Iowa with his adult daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek). His body is failing him, his eyesight is waning, and he seems more aged than his 73 years should account for. His face is an intricate tapestry of craggy wrinkles that are offset by a pair of blue eyes that are nothing short of captivating... his one feature that transcends the ordinary. Yes, we recognize him. And David Lynch knows that we will respond to the visual shorthand before us. In fact, he counts on it. But not in the way that most filmmakers would count on it, which would be to use our assumptions to advance plot or character development efficiently. Lynch counts on it because he seeks to reveal the superficial nature of those assumptions, and the egregiously limited accuracy of what we think we know when we look at such a man. As the film unfolds, we will come to see inside of those beautiful eyes the way that Lynch sees inside of them. And we will come to see the things that those eyes see the way that Straight sees them (blurry though his vision may be).

Much has been made of the presumed "fact" that this is a non-Lynchian David Lynch film. But I reject that notion outright. This is every bit a David Lynch film, despite its apparent departure from the disturbing subject matter and edgy darkness that his earlier works are known for. As is his habit, Lynch is aiming to get inside of the world he presents, to take us beneath the surface and expose its secrets. The only real difference between The Straight Story and Lynch's more famous works (e.g., Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart) is that he illuminates this man and his world by allowing them to come to us. Rather than using his camera to (quite literally) burrow inside of character and setting and plot, he uses it as a benevolent window that seems to expand incrementally, progressively broadening and enriching our view. Watching The Straight Story is like watching a rose bloom in real time... if one could do such a thing without ever getting antsy, that is. As the story unfolds, our sense of the many forms of beauty on display grows increasingly vivid and poignant without ever edging into the realm of sappy or cloying. Alvin Straight sets out on his lawnmower

The story--such as it is--involves Alvin's decision to travel several hundred miles to see his ailing brother, from whom he has been estranged for a decade. Alvin can't afford to travel by conventional means, and he can't drive because his license has been revoked due to his poor eyesight. So he sets off for Wisconsin on the only machine he's legally allowed to operate: his lawnmower. What follows is a topsy-turvy version of a road movie, wherein the central character is not (as the convention would normally have it) transformed. Instead, it is Alvin who transforms the road and the people he interacts with, as well as the audience that comes along for the ride. Not in an overtly dramatic, earth-shattering way, but in a quietly affecting one. As you might expect, the structure is episodic, moving from one locale to the next with Alvin. And though small things do happen, this is not a film that revels in high drama or wrenching plot twists. Most of the events depicted could fairly be labeled mundane, which might lead some to feel that there's no there there. But there is. And Lynch finds the means to make us see what's there by urging us to slow down our thoughts and settle into the deliberately languid pace that informs both the narrative and the journey it depicts. The slow pace of this film is key to a fundamental issue being addressed. Alvin cannot be in a hurry, so he is not in a hurry. He accepts the terms of his task, and uses them to whatever advantage is available. Sometimes that advantage takes the form of an interesting human interaction, and sometimes it merely provides an opportunity for him to truly see the world he is passing through, simply by giving him the time to look. Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight

Farnsworth provides a presence more than a performance (though it is--in truth--a remarkable performance). His Alvin is a man of few words, plain spoken, kind without being smarmy, and quiet in his stubborn insistence on doing things his own way. There are no scenery-chewing moments of intense histrionics for Farnsworth to latch onto. It is up to us to see beyond the veil of Alvin's seemingly infinite sense of calm. Farnsworth allows us in, but never fully lets down Alvin's guard. In other words, it's an honest portrayal of this kind of man. The kind we never notice. The kind we assume has nothing of interest to tell us or show us. Great credit is due to both Farnsworth and Lynch for avoiding the trap of having him metamorphose into a movie character. And for never reaching for a false sense of intimacy between the audience and Alvin, just to tug more effectively on our heartstrings. Though Alvin reveals himself and his sorrows and joys through dialogue exchanged with those he meets, it is always handled in a way that seems true to the reticent man that he is. He may tell a few tales that are factually heartbreaking, but Farnsworth never wrings an undue amount of emotion from these moments to pump up the audience response. Instead, we are asked only to recognize the greater context within which this man exists. To see him more fully than he's ever tried to be seen. To see the wall he's built, and not just the cracks in it that give us a peek at why it existed in the first place. It's an inspired approach, and a dangerous one. It conveys a sense of trust in the audience that most filmmakers are loathe to invest. Lynch believes that this man - just as he is - is worthy of a movie. And he trusts us to recognize why he believes that. And to recognize why he's right. This little movie is deceptive in its restraint. It is--in fact--some of the boldest filmmaking of the decade, steadfastly refusing to fall back on trickery or bombast to insure a common sort of satisfaction.

The supporting cast is perfectly plain. And perfectly perfect. They look and sound and act like unremarkable, ordinary people. And yet they're never dull. How did Lynch pull this off? It's odd, to say the least. Sissy Spacek is very good as Alvin's daughter, Rose... a girl who is--as it turns out--not quite what she seems at first glance. It's a delight to stumble upon the tiny moments that soon begin to add up to a character that feels so authentically human. And it's an equal delight to feel our assumptions crumble away as we share more time with her. It makes you wonder what you've missed in the people you've encountered and assessed, but never really known. Her scenes are relatively few, but they add a layer of meaning that resonates on several levels. Spacek may get some well-deserved attention for this role despite its limited screen time, if only because it is so full of surprises. We always remember being surprised, don't we?

Shot with lavish care by Freddie Francis, the midwest countryside is stunningly lovely. This is precisely the sort of terrain that we tend to rush through on our way to somewhere else, but Alvin's sluggish John Deere forces us to look at where we are. Utterly devoid of drama, the simplicity of this landscape ultimately takes on the aura of a quiet perfection that borders on the sublime. It isn't Monument Valley. And that's the point. Just as Alvin isn't movie-star gorgeous or a dashingly rugged hero. Just as the story being told is not a rollercoaster thrill-ride. Lynch and Francis ferret out the beauty that we often miss by looking only at extremes. They honor the ordinary in a way that is extraordinarily tender and loving. And part of that act of honor is to let it be what it is, unvarnished and plain... and to allow us the time and the perspective to take a good look. It's a wonderful achievement, born of an astute and careful employment of film language. Those who assess Lynch's directorial bent according only to the content of his stories have missed a crucial fact. He is a brilliant and peculiar visualist. Those who understand the essence of Lynch's gift will see him all over this film. His playfulness. His wry sense of humor (believe it or not, the film is occasionally hilarious). His aesthetic kinks. His passion for the world in all its glory and ugliness and absurdity. And (no, this is not a typo) his deeply-sincere idealism. David Lynch is a real world version of the Wes Bentley character in American Beauty. He sees beauty everywhere he looks. He regards the world with wonder and curiosity, and he hopes that we'll share his fascination if he shows us that world through his eyes and ears.

What Lynch gives to us in The Straight Story goes beyond the beauty of the ordinary. He also conveys the beauty of the human struggle for redemption and peace... the beauty of simple generosity... the beauty of a gesture that translates as love in a way that words could never do... the beauty inherent in our world, upon which we heap needless pain and ugliness in order to protect things that really don't matter. I can't recall the last film I saw that expressed this level of tenderness and affection from beginning to end. Gentle, graceful, and calm, The Straight Story generates the kind of low-key pleasure that feels like an internalized smile that never quite fades away. There is something deeply satisfying about residing briefly in the mind and heart of a storyteller who is in love with both his subject and with the art of storytelling itself. Lynch's film pays off in ways that are subtle and unquantifiable. By the time it reaches its conclusion, The Straight Story manages to sneak up on you and pull you in, making you wonder how a film with so little drama and so little excitement can possibly feel so oddly, quietly exhilarating. And yet it does. As Lynch himself might put it, it's a beautiful thing to behold.

Review © October 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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