The City of Absurdity The Straight Story

David Lynch's surprising 'The Straight Story' balances pastoral and moral beauty

By Michael Wilmington, Chicago-Tribune, October 1999

Richard Farnsworth plays Alvin Straight with strength and conviction in "The Sraight Story," based on a true story.

As we watch "The Straight Story" – David Lynch's new film based on the real-life story of an elderly Iowan on an arduous journey to visit his long-estranged brother – we see something American studio movies usually don't give us: the simple, unsentimentalized beauty of the rural American Midwestern landscape. And we also see – and feel – the beauty, physical and moral, of some of the people who live there. Through Lynch's eyes, we watch the magic hour settling over the plains, the receding sunlight over green flatlands and rows of corn, tiny little towns with white painted fences going gray in the advancing dusk. And we see the quiet, plainspoken townspeople and farm people – especially the film's central character: 73-year-old Alvin Straight (played magnificently by 79-year-old Richard Farnsworth).

Straight is a real-life Iowan who, despite being partly crippled, partly blinded and hobbled by advancing age, undertakes in 1994 (two years before his own death) what, to him, is a perilous journey: a cross-state odyssey from the town of Laurens, Iowa, to Mt. Zion, Wis., and the home of his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) – who has recently suffered a stroke. Along the way – creeping along at 5 miles an hour on his John Deere lawnmower, regularly imperiled by steep hills or huge trucks – Straight confronts or meets a variety of people.

In Laurens, there are his harried daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) and the pragmatic John Deere salesman (Everett McGill). On the way to Zion, there is a succession of rural folks who, properly impressed by his quest and fortitude, often lend a helping hand.

Finally, Alvin reaches his goal, a resolution that carries with it a kind of quiet exaltation –unforced, unstressed – that, again, we rarely get from American pictures.

Movies, which are usually obsessed with youth, sexiness, physical charm and violent "heroism," don't often give us central characters like Alvin Straight, which is what makes this film – and Farnsworth's transfixing performance – all the more precious. It's a wonderful, heartening view, very different even from the well-meaning but waxy and spurious "inspirational" docudramas on TV, which is where stories like this one mostly end up.

At the center of this film's luminous vision is its perfectly cast star. Farnsworth is an ex-Western stuntman (in "Red River" and Roy Rogers movies) who, late in life, became a character actor, playing rustic, gentle old outdoorsmen in films like "Comes a Horseman" and "The Grey Fox." Perhaps because of his years as an anonymous player, his acting style is thoroughly self-effacing, the antithesis of the overtheatrical or consciously picturesque. With his sparkling blue eyes and soft, almost toneless voice, he has a delivery and style nearly inimitable: serene, a little weary, the voice of a man who talks rarely and only to the point.

That makes him the ideal choice for Alvin, a battered but determined old man who decides to mend fences with his brother – with whom he hasn't spoken for decades. A standard character actor (like Ernest Borgnine, who played another version of this story on TV) couldn't capture what's important about Alvin. But Farnsworth gets it effortlessly.

He also gives old age a purity and dignity it doesn't usually get in our movies, with their condescending views of the elderly as cute, capering old codgers, acting like slangy youngsters.

Yet maybe the most surprising thing about "The Straight Story" is that it was made by Lynch – whose reputation is for seeing the macabre, mysterious and secretly sinister and violent in American landscapes. Lynch's "Eraserhead" comes as close to the shadowy evil of '20s German Expressionism as any American movie since the classic film noir era of the '40s and '50s. And in "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks" he presents a different non-urban America: soaked in menace, madness and guilty secrets.

There's another constant element in Lynch's darker work: an overpowering sexual paranoia, a real fear and loathing of the flesh that is completely absent from "The Straight Story" – perhaps because sex is not an issue here with Alvin. In any case, this is the sweetest and most compassionate film Lynch has made, more moving even than that other uncharacteristically humane Lynch picture, "The Elephant Man" (which definitely had its macabre side). What story could be simpler – straighter and truer – than this one?

"The Straight Story" is a great, haunting film; it affects us in ways we're not used to, or maybe not accustomed to as much as we should be. Like a simple tune on a faraway flute, a song in the gathering twilight, it is capable of both lifting our hearts and chilling us to the bone. Thanks to Alvin Straight for living this story. Thanks to Lynch and his fellow filmmakers for telling it.


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© Mike Hartmann