The Straight Story (1999)

23 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Before I get into what a treasure “The Straight Story” is, that it’s based on a true story, and it features the best performance from veteran actor Richard Farnsworth, let me express a surprising thought from the opening credits. Let’s see, there was the “Walt Disney Pictures” logo, followed by a starry sky, the first text appeared—“Walt Disney Pictures presents.” But then, something unusual happened—not that the director was credited before the title and lead actors’ credit (in a late-‘90s Disney film), but who the director turned out to be. David Lynch. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there it was—“A Film by David Lynch.”

I contained my surprise and my interests. I never would have believed that David Lynch, one of the oddest, revealing, visionary filmmakers around (see “Twin Peaks,” see “Blue Velvet”), would make a G-rated family film for Disney. But I guess every filmmaker wants to try something new every now and then, much like how Francis Ford Coppola wanted to try something new after such gripping masterpieces as “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” would make something like “The Outsiders,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” or (to a much lesser extent) “Jack.” Then again, it’s not like Lynch hasn’t ventured into different territory before “The Straight Story” (see “Dune,” for example), but this is about as new as he could venture.

And for the record, I want to make something perfectly clear. Just because a film is rated G, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a children’s film. Actually, I think “The Straight Story” was more aimed for adults than children who, despite the Disney distribution, could be bored out of their minds. Oh, you can show it to them, but they might not care much for it. However, if you do, I’m sure they’ll remember it more fondly as they get older and more mature, and thank you for showing it to them. “The Straight Story” is an excellent movie. It’s touching, effective, interesting, colorful, brilliantly-executed, wonderfully-acted, and with a real feel-good spirit to it.

You read that last part right—this is a feel-good movie. While Lynch’s “Eraserhead” featured nightmarish elements and “Blue Velvet” had extreme views on happiness and bleakness, “The Straight Story” features sincerity and positive elements that make this something special and of course make you feel glad you watched it. It’s practically impossible not to love this movie.

Like most feel-good stories, “The Straight Story” is based on a real event that occurred in the life of a real person. The story follows a 73-year-old man named Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who lives in Laurens, Iowa with his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek). Alvin has a hip problem (that requires to walk with two canes), has bad vision, and is dealing with the fact that he just doesn’t feel as young as he did. One day, he hears that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke, and decides that he must go see him. With no driver’s license and poor eyesight, he is going to make the trip from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin (about 320 miles) with his own John Deere lawnmower and a homemade trailer. (I’m sure this was probably Lynch’s hook to direct this movie—an unusual road trip with a slow-moving lawnmower.)

As unusual and possibly as silly as that might sound, Lynch plays the story straight (forgive the pun) with a real sense of sincerity in the way that Alvin makes the trip in about six weeks, stopping at night to camp out in nearby fields and meets some good-natured, interesting people along the way (as you see in just about every road movie). That’s not to say there isn’t quirkiness involved, but it’s more measured than you might expect.

“The Straight Story” showcases Lynch’s talent as a filmmaker in just about every scene, mainly because he is in constant control. Every shot is perfectly set up and has a purpose, and everything in the foreground and background is focused upon interestingly. Some of the best examples are the earlier scenes that give us an atmospheric look at the South, which from the standpoint of a person who has lived in a rural area most of his life, is captured perfectly.

There are many masterful sequences during this six-week trip, which is shown almost episodically. One of which has to do with a young female hitchhiker who shares a campfire with Alvin, who manages to give her helpful advice. We don’t know what happens to her later, after she has left the following morning, but we can imagine that she made the right choice. Then, there’s a scene in which a frightened woman breaks down when she accidentally hits another deer on the street (and it was her thirteenth accident). This scene has nothing to do with anything else, but you can feel the sadness the woman must be going through, even if the scene only lasts about two or three minutes. And there’s a particularly well-edited, tense sequence that sort-of serves as the sole action sequence, as it features Alvin losing control of the mower and speeding down a hill, nearly getting himself killed, into a town where more people come into his life, most of which are good-natured, helpful individuals.

The setting of the town is possibly the best of Alvin’s stops. We see more memorable side characters, including a bickering pair of brothers (which symbolize the past relationship of Alvin and his own brother who the trip is for) and a retired John Deere employee who lets Alvin camp out in his backyard while he fixes the lawnmower’s transmission. (By the way, if you’re wondering, Alvin won’t come into the house, even to use the phone.) And this is also where we get a heartbreaking monologue, delivered perfectly by Richard Farnsworth, as he tells the story of being a sniper in World War II and the fatal mistake he made. It’s a great scene and an excellent monologue—one I’ll never forget.

Richard Farnsworth is perfectly cast as Alvin Straight. With his kindly voice and sweet manner, Farnsworth is one of those actors whose presence helps make the movie. He has the right spirit, the perfect sense of conviction, great clarity, and real effectiveness. We’re with him throughout this movie and he is believable and likable from the first minute to the last.

“The Straight Story” is a wonderful film. It features an artist in top form while stepping into new territory, a veteran actor in his best (and unfortunately, last) performance of his career, and a nice respectful feel to it. If David Lynch has to show that he doesn’t have to resort to shock tactics to get people’s attention, especially to studios, this is the film that is a prime example of him as a more-than-capable filmmaker.

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