The City of Absurdity The Straight Story

By Janet Maslin, New York Times, October 1999

In 1994 an elderly man named Alvin Straight undertook a long Midwestern journey riding on a lawnmower. It was an arduous feat, but not nearly as daunting as what David Lynch sets out to do in "The Straight Story": make a slow-moving, folksy-looking, profoundly spiritual film that can hold an audience in absolute thrall. As the least likely filmmaker on the planet to pull off such a G-rated miracle, Lynch rises to this challenge with exhilarating vigor. Switching gears radically, bravely defying conventional wisdom about what it takes to excite moviegoers, Lynch presents the flip side of "Blue Velvet" and turns it into a supremely improbable triumph.

Of course this film's wholesome radiance and soothing natural beauty are distinctly at odds with the famously unwholesome Lynch imagination. The chasm between the ghoulish malevolence of the filmmaker's previous "Lost Highway" and the decent, forthright tone of "The Straight Story" is almost too huge to fathom. But the same bellwether quality that left "Blue Velvet" looking so prescient, and ushered in a whole cinematic wave of taboo-shattering, is at work once again. When a born unnaturalist like Lynch can bring such interest and emotion to one man's simple story, the realm of the ordinary starts looking like a new frontier.

It helps that "The Straight Story" is as precise and technically adept as Lynch's other work, and that its effects are achieved with the same exacting care. The classic opening images of "Blue Velvet" are echoed at this film's start, as the camera takes in a seemingly ordinary house and lawn and Lynch uses sound, music and staging to build unnerving suspense. The house becomes eerily quiet and isolated until a sudden event introduces Alvin Straight, played without a trace of artifice by the veteran actor Richard Farnsworth. "The Straight Story" would not have been possible without Farnsworth's terse, no-nonsense honesty at its heart.

For a notion of just how far removed most American movies are from actual experience, consider the startling effect that Farnsworth has on screen. This actor, rancher and former stunt man, enough of a film veteran to have driven a chariot in "The Ten Commandments," cuts a startling figure as an unabashedly old man. Unshaven, infirm, scraggly-haired and without makeup, he automatically frees the film from any sense of artifice and delivers an amazingly stalwart performance that will not soon be forgotten.

Alvin lives with his daughter (played by Sissy Spacek) in Laurens, Iowa, a town where there's never any trouble finding a parking space on Main Street. His health is failing, and he knows that his life is about to change. A straightforward sequence in which Alvin visits a doctor, quietly sizes up the ominous medical equipment and listens to dire predictions about his health, is enough to explain his subsequent behavior. Faced with a choice between aging helplessly in Laurens or having one more meaningful taste of freedom, Alvin decides to hit the road.

Ostensibly, he is on his way to Mount Zion, Wis., in hopes of finding his estranged brother, who has had a stroke. (The less a viewer knows about where this journey will lead, the better. The film builds real suspense about its outcome, and becomes extremely moving in its final scene.) But in fact Alvin's journey isn't much about a destination. Lynch, working from a lovely and succinct screenplay by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, invests each phase of the trip with resonance about Alvin's life and the lives of those he meets, so that each encounter takes on an unforced larger significance.

"The Straight Story" has the curious disadvantage of being spoken in English and steeped in Americana. Its eloquent, contemplative spirit is much more indigenous to films from other parts of the world.

One of the many haunting images here finds Alvin moving along an open road on his mower, which he rides because he has no driver's license -- and because he wants to make this one last voyage in his own way.

The camera pans up, and Angelo Badalamenti's beautiful folk-influenced score rolls along, until the camera moves down again -- and finds Alvin almost exactly where he was. "The Straight Story" is more about gazing at the sky, about experiencing each encounter to the fullest, than it is about getting anywhere in a hurry. It's been too long since a great American movie dared to regard life that way.



Directed by David Lynch; written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; director of photography, Freddie Francis; edited by Ms. Sweeney; music by Angelo Badalamenti; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Ms. Sweeney and Neal Edelstein; released by Walt Disney Pictures. Running time: 110 minutes. This film is rated G.

Cast: Sissy Spacek (Rose), Richard Farnsworth (Alvin) and Harry Dean Stanton (Lyle).


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© Mike Hartmann