The City of Absurdity The Straight Story

By Ron Wells, Film Threat, October 1999

Well, you can have Disney release a real David Lynch film, but you can't really expect a Disney film released from David Lynch (or, uh, something to that effect). It may have a "G" rating and that blue and white castle up front, but thankfully, our boy is what he is. Based on a true story, we meet Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a stubborn old man near the end of his life in Laurens, Iowa. We quickly learn that his body is failing him. When he learns that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has had a stroke, Alvin decides that his last great act under his own power will be to visit the sibling to which he hasn't spoken in ten years. His bad hips and eyes prevent him from driving, and he's too proud to let anyone take him. What's he going to do? He outfits his lawnmower with a trailer to traverse the 370 miles to his brother's home in Wisconsin. The physical journal begets a few metaphysical ones, as we learn that Alvin has had to make peace with more than his brother, and he helps several others he encounters come to grips with their demons, as well.

The masterstroke is Farnsworth, in a career-capping performance. This is the best performance I've seen all year. Farnsworth, who has been in the film industry since the dawn of time (mostly as a stuntman), doesn't even consider himself a real actor, but the gravity portrayed in his haunted expressions is as great as anything Morgan Freeman or Helen Mirren has ever produced. However you may feel about some of Lynch's cinematic mannerisms, you can't fight the pull of Alvin's pain. Yeah, I know, this all sounds like an idiotic TV movie, but I can assure you, this is, down to every frame, a David Lynch movie. The feature itself is teaming with the director's cronies, including co-star Sissy Spacek and her husband, the production designer Jack Fisk, who BOTH worked on "Eraserhead". More importantly, the original script came from Lynch's professional and personal partner, producer Mary Sweeney.

Believe me, the "G" rating does NOT mean this is a kid's film, it just means the limited imaginations of the MPAA Board couldn't find anything to which they could object. Lynch displays the same precision to textures, sound, and world-building that he always has, but, most importantly, we see many of the same recurring themes.

Lynch films are not about plot. This is the main reason "Dune" was such a bad match for him. They are, down to his early short films, about individuals, and how they deal with the horrors and pain of their lives. With "Eraserhead", Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) has a life, and then a wife and child that he hates. In "The Elephant Man", John Merrick is born with a disease that produces horrible physical deformities. Fred Madison is an impotent jazz musician in "Lost Highway" who kills his cheating wife. Jeffrey Beaumont is a very confused college student in "Blue Velvet"; a good kid drawn to a darkness that nearly swallows him whole. Laura Palmer is a high school beauty queen brutally raped by her father her whole life in "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me". In the short film "The Grandmother", a young, sensitive boy is tormented by his parents over his bed-wetting.

Henry, Fred, Laura, and the boy all create elaborate fantasy worlds, frightening in and of themselves, but easier for them to accept than their real lives. These worlds consume them. Merrick, Jeffrey, and Alvin, may at times succumb to their pain, but they eventually accept themselves and their limitations, and find a sort of peace. All of these people are Lynch's children, and probably reflections of himself. He renders all of their stories with love and no trace of condescension or condemnation.

If you're not into the director's works, a genre unto themselves, this may or may not be a film accessible to you. The focus is lighter on some of his tics and heavier on emotional catharsis. It's neither sentimental nor maudlin. It's also not hip or cynical, but after the accumulated fluff of this year, it's reassuring that Lynch is never too cool to care.


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