The City of Absurdity The Straight Story

Blessed Simplicity

By Elizabeth Weitzman,, October 1999

Honestly, no 500-word review could sum up David Lynch's new film with half the eloquence of its three-word title. Clear-eyed and open-hearted, The Straight Story (which is based on reality) tells a simple tale, and it does so with a rare, blessed simplicity.

There are hints that Lynch's latest will draw on his past in the slightly surreal opening shots, which buzz intently through a hyper-bright small town. But don't be mislead; there's nothing weird going on behind these picket fences – well, nothing more bizarre than a humble dedication to old-fashioned ethics.

The moral heart of the film is 73-year-old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth). Alvin lives with his daughter, Rose (an out-of-tune Sissy Spacek), a sweet but slow woman with a pronounced speech impediment. Alvin is a fixture in his community, and because of his age and Rose's continual confusion, people worry about him. Not without reason, either; a recent fall has left him dependent on two walking canes, and his deteriorating eyesight has lost him his driver's license. However, the last person to worry about Alvin is Alvin, and when he learns his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has had a stroke, he ignores the obvious obstacles, and determines to go make peace before it's too late.

In a few days, Alvin has figured out his plan, which couldn't be more elementary: drive the hundreds of miles across Iowa until he reaches Lyle. But since Alvin doesn't have a car, he has to make due with a thirty-year-old lawn mower. And that's it, really; for several weeks he putts along scenic routes and highways, always calm, always seemingly confident he'll reach his goal despite roaring trucks and engine failure. What action there is takes place in the tucked-away pockets of the road, after he or, more often, his vehicle simply can't go on without a rest. At each stop, Alvin teaches those with whom he briefly connects a thing or two about life, but more importantly, we learn a new thing or two about the reticent Alvin himself. We discover the true nature of his relationship with his brother; we hear a little about his past experiences as a grandfather, a father and a husband; we find out he served his country in World War II.

The adventures we see – a campfire with a pregnant runaway, a meal in a graveyard with a priest – are fairly tame, and some are better than others. There are times when the movie threatens to become a high-class "Highway to Heaven." But Farnsworth, nominated for an Oscar in 1979, is so celestial an actor, his portrayal of this down-to-earth man is nearly heartbreaking in its elegance. His performance – along with some exalted work from cinematographer Freddie Francis – pulls it all together so beautifully that Lynch's serene vision becomes grandest in its smallest moments. The best parts of the film, invariably, are those when it's just Alvin and us, sputtering along towards a common goal in silence.


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© Mike Hartmann