The Straight Story - Internet Movie Database The Straight Story - Nitrate Online Review
Contents | Features | Reviews | Books | Archives | Store
The Straight Story - Nitrate Online Store
Movie Credits Buy It!

The Straight Story

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 15 October 1999


Directed by David Lynch

Starring Richard Farnsworth, 
Sissy Spacek, Jennifer Edwards, 
Barbara E. Robertson, John Farley, 
and Harry Dean Stanton

Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney

David Lynch has a history of treating audiences to the unexpected and the bizarre. After a handful of experimental shorts, the visual artist-turned-filmmaker created a B&W nightmare of a fetus baby and a lady under the radiator in an industrial wasteland: Eraserhead. Since then he’s treated us to giant sandworms, space-faring slugs, and a bloated, puss-filled ruler who finds sexual gratification in draining slaves of blood (Dune), Dennis Hopper as a drug-dealing sex monster in rural America (Blue Velvet), an incestuous murderer inhabited by a force of pure evil (Twin Peaks, the TV show and the movie), a twisted remake of The Wizard of Oz where he literally blows the  heads and limbs of his villains from their bodies (Wild At Heart), and a psychodrama mind game involving a killer who eviscerates his wife and a sinister, white faced Robert Blake who may or may not be the devil rolled into a mobius-strip mystery which has no solution (Lost Highway). When you’ve broken so many taboos on so many levels, just how does America’s most subversive filmmaker surprise an audience?

The Walt Disney logo that announces his latest film is a good start.

For most people walking into the theater for a gentle G-rated family movie this should pose no shock, but for anyone gearing up for a “A Film by David Lynch” it’s a surreal bit of cinematic whiplash. A G-rated film from David Lynch. The mind boggles.

The most pleasant surprise of The Straight Story isn’t so much that it’s a family friendly tale, but that it’s a genuine David Lynch movie, full of strange and wondrous images, delightful character quirks, and that off-kilter sense of pace and timing that has twisted many an otherwise bland conversation of meaningless small talk and pithy clichés into the twilight zone of sinister suggestion. Lynch hasn’t changed his style, only his subject and his skew: that often mesmerizing, measured pacing and out-of-step conversational style is put into the gentle side of small town life. The opening image drops from a twinkling starscape to a vision of small town America that could be the sequel to Blue Velvet. Cars putter down quiet roads and cute little 1950s-style houses nestle in green lawns while Angelo Badalamenti’s dripping-with-emotion score of strings and moaning electronics creates something ominous on the soundtrack. Finally the camera slowly cranes down into the yard between two houses. A woman sunning herself on a lawn chair goes into one house as the camera starts creeping over to a curtained window of the other house. A sudden thud hits the soundtrack. Surely this is the Lynch of old: violence hidden behind the walls of rural America, a gunshot, a suicide. Something sinister, right?

Something natural, as it turns out. We find Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) on the floor, still and stuck like a turtle, just as his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) gets in. “I just need a little help getting up, honey,” he quietly confesses, making no more of his accident than he cares to. Alvin is a big smiling 73-year-old man with bright, kindly blue eyes, a scraggly white beard and bushy mustache, and skin that webs up the veins and muscles of his neck and etches across his face. His wits are about him and his will is strong, but his body is giving out and he only grudgingly goes to the doctor, with two conditions: “No tests. No operations.” The doctor tells him he has emphysema (among other things) and should give smoking, use a walker, and change his diet. “If you don’t make some changes soon there will be some serious consequences.” The best he does is add a second cane to help him walk.

Alvin and Rose live their lives to the beat of a different drum. They let the telephone practically ring out while watching a thunderstorm play across the sky as if it were a fireworks display before Rose gets up to answer it nonchalantly, like an afterthought. It’s bad news: Alvin’s brother Lyle, whom he hasn’t spoken to in years, has suffered a stroke. Alvin decides it’s time to change all that, before it’s too late for either of them, and he starts fooling with his old John Deere riding mower and building a trailer. He has no license (and his bad eyesight precludes any possibility of getting one) so he stakes his personally odyssey – a 320 mile drive from Iowa to Wisconsin – on a lawnmower. “I've got to go see Lyle, and I've got to make the trip on my own,” he explains. As cheery guitar and fiddle music (not at all what you’d expect from Badalamenti) plays on the soundtrack, Alvin tools down the highway, his blue eyes twinkling in the joy of the open road: a septuagenarian Easy Rider.

On the surface The Straight Story is the strangest of road movies, a bizarre Midwest Harry and Tonto of small town hicks and windy rural highways, as seen from a vehicle that can’t top 10 miles an hour. But there’s nothing subversive about the Alvin’s journey and nothing satirical in Lynch’s look at the people he meets: a pregnant teenage runaway to whom he dispenses a little wisdom about the strength of the family, a passel of bicyclists who invites him to their camp, a middle aged couple who kind of adopt Alvin after a harrowing near-accident puts his vehicle out of commission, even the bickering twins who repair his John Deere, initially set up as bumbling fools but emerge as real people startled by Alvin’s shrewd negotiating skills. Alvin is humble but determined, sharing so much of himself to those he meets but also keeping a part of himself closed off. While camping in the yard of one couple,  he politely but obstinately refuses to set foot in their house, as if his journey precludes that kind of social comfort. When he borrows their phone for a long-distance call, he leaves it outside with a couple of bills beneath it, paying his own way.

Lynch brings an odd mix of up-by-your bootstraps American conservatism and twilight-of-his-years generosity to Alvin’s story. It’s based on a true story (the real Alvin Straight died in 1996 and the film is dedicated to his memory), turned into a screenplay by Lynch’s life partner, producer and editor Mary Sweeney and her writing partner, John Roach. Sweeney was as surprised as anyone when Lynch decided it was a perfect project for him. The film rambles along at the speed of Alvin’s mower, sharing his unhurried pace with us as we idly watch the landscape creep by, or enjoy a repast in the woods. When a rainstorm comes up Alvin putters into a covered barn and smiles out into the downpour. Days melt into one another like a river of time lazily wending it’s way through deepest, stillest parts of the journey. Freddie Francis, who previously shot The Elephant Man for Lynch, finds an understated beauty in all of these images, unforced and slightly askew, born of the hearty earth colors of the rural Midwest in the dying days of a golden summer and the birth of fall’s orange and brown palette.

Lynch’s offbeat sense of humor creeps through the film, giving a deliciously strange skew to some events. A woman careening down the road passes Alvin in a mad frenzy, followed by an offscreen screech and a thick thud. “I have hit 13 deer in 7 weeks driving down this street,” she cries in mumbled hysteria to Alvin, but really no one in particular. “He’s dead—and I love deer!” she pleads, on the verge of tears as much from helplessness as sadness, before jumping back in the car and tearing off in the same reckless rush. The capper to the scene is Alvin’s pragmatism as he grabs an antler and tilts the head up, eyeing it as the internal wheels whir. Cut to twilight dinner over an open fire, where Alvin shifts uncomfortably as he eats his venison while a herd of deer peer curiously over his shoulder. Only in a Lynch film would he take refuge in a field of stone deer statues!

Alvin doesn’t travel a lost highway, but the road to the heart of American values, where strangers lend a hand and more. The dirty secret of The Straight Story is that getting old isn’t easy, but it isn’t the end of your life. Farnsworth is magnificent as Alvin, looking frail and brittle and speaking with a quiet authority, as he reveals the memories that continue to haunt him (in one marvelous scene he shares WWII memories with a fellow vet) and his daughter Rose. Sissy Spacek, in another beautifully nuanced and underplayed performance (she’s the forgotten figure in the acting glories of Affliction), is almost heartbreaking as the resilient, remarkable Rose, a single, middle aged woman with an unusual speech impediment (which isn’t even evident in the first scenes) that everyone in the town takes to mean she’s “slow.” (When Alvin shares her secret tragedy to a stranger on the road it’s almost too much to bear.) Lynch even finds the beauty of Rose’s speech, the way she sticks on words as she struggles to spit out a syllable with the practiced calm, creating an almost natural unnatural rhythm.

I give kudos to Disney for picking up this production (Lynch produced it independently and then shopped for a distributor), because it’s not a kid’s film. It’s too slow and introspective, and frankly too mature in it’s exploration of the twilight years of one man pushing the limits of his body to make one last odyssey, to really keep a young audience entertained. At almost 2 hours it’s going to seem slow to many who don’t fall in synch with Lynch’s lolling pace and serene visual style. It may even frustrate Lynch fans looking for another film pushing the limits of social taboos with transgressive shocks and sordid situations. The Straight Story is a quiet, introspective journey to the heartland of America, a world quirky and quaint but without that sordid underbelly of rotting values Lynch loves to expose. In place of the horrors in suburban setting Lynch has so often explored past films, here he takes time out to linger over the beauty of everyday life: one of the most astounding images is a spray of WD-40 running off the sphere of a ball hitch. For those willing to put themselves into the hands of Lynch, they’ll find a sweet, serious, and moving odyssey of one man making the physical and emotional trip to his estranged brother, one last moment of self reliance before old age finally has him too far in its withering grip.

Contents | Features | Reviews | Books | Archives | Store
Copyright © 1999 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.