The City of Absurdity The Straight Story

Duncan Shepherd looks at the latest from David Lynch and Martin Scorsese

By Duncan Shepherd, San Diego Reader, November 4, 1999
with many thanks to Greg M.

After all the hullabaloo earlier in the year about a G-rated film from David Mamet – The Winslow Boy – it is hard to get worked up all over again about a G-rated film from David Lynch, The Straight Story. It was hard enough in the first place to get worked up about the Mamet, which had the same amount of craftsmanship as any other Mamet, if not the same amount of cussing. And now The Straight Story, notwithstanding its Midwestern corn and its heartland-on-the-sleeve, turns out to have its fair share of Lynchian crotchets as well. This cuts both ways. The movie – the true story of a crusty old codger called Alvin Straight who travels 370 miles from Iowa into Wisconsin on a motorized lawnmower to visit his estranged brother before it's too late – has more laughs, or anyway more sniggers, than you might anticipate, but it also has an element of condescension that throws a cloud over the homespun sentiment. The obese, snacking, front-yard sunbather ("What's the number for 911?") and the plaid-shirted bar patron with six inches of turned-up cuff on his blue jeans are fair representatives, or victims, of the double-edged sword. In any event, Lynch's newfound softness, however sincere it may or may not be, seems a less positive alteration than Mamet's cleanness – a less precise and pointed one. Where Lynch more nearly matches Mamet is in the look of his film. If the compositions are a wee bit tidy, fussbudgety, calendar-arty, the color is rich and full and brilliant. (The cameraman, the octogenarian Freddie Francis, had worked before with Lynch – in black-and-white – on The Elephant Man, and – in color but not so brilliantly – on Dune.) No other movie this year, not forgetting the bucolic Mumford, has been freer of smog than Mamet's and Lynch's. The puddly-eyed Richard Farnsworth, the titular Straight-shooter, will never again be the revelation he was in Comes a Horseman, but it is good, not great, to see so plain-spoken an actor in so commodious a role. Sissy Spacek, on the other hand, well-entrenched as one of the finest actresses of the age, can still manage to be a revelation. As the hero's somewhat dim daughter, she comes up with an oddish, freakish, barking manner of speech as distinctive in its own way as Billy Bob Thornton's growling manner in Sling Blade. A one-of-a-kind. And it's a serious loss, in humor as much as in humanity, when the hero and the movie leave her behind just past the half-hour mark. Slowness – even after the old sputtering mower is swapped for a reconditioned '66 John Deere – now becomes a way of life (the tortoise-paced tracking shot over the yellow line in the middle of the road is a sort of low-gear parody of the opening sequence in Lynch's Lost Highway), and boredom becomes the daily diet. A not disagreeable light-headedness follows. And in that state, with nothing more compelling on screen, I found myself wondering how the subject might have turned out in a film – documentary or re-creation – by Werner Herzog (the eccentricity bordering on lunacy would surely have appealed to him), in addition to wondering whether it could be mere happenstance that the hero's date of departure coincides with Herzog's birthday. It's easy for me to remember Herzog's birthday. It's the same as mine.

Verdict: See it.


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