The City of Absurdity The Straight Story

'Straight Story' gets right to heart of lawn mower trip

By Duane Dudek, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 1999

"The Straight Story" suggests the Steve Goodman song "The City of New Orleans" and its travelogue commentary on the passing countryside and the characters passed along the way. Yet this back-roads American Gothic comes, somewhat improbably, from David Lynch, whose "Twin Peaks," "Eraserhead" and "Blue Velvet" were far less linear though just as ambiguous.

Haunting, gentle and G-rated, "The Straight Story" is as original as anything this esoteric filmmaker has ever produced and quite a bit more profound. It shows Lynch's creative personality, like his protagonist, to be mature, unhurried and still happily subversive.

One can only imagine reactions among the Hollywood studio crowd to the proposition: a reflective movie about a 73-year-old infirm man who drives a rider mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his estranged, ailing brother. But for Lynch - and screenwriter Mary Sweeney working with Madison writer John Roach - the story is about the intersection of nature and human nature in fly-over country. It's a Cornbelt "The Old Man and the Sea."

Besides Sweeney, an editor on "Lost Highway" and "Wild At Heart," Lynch works with longtime collaborators Freddie Francis, his director of photography, and composer Angelo Badalamenti, whose score for fiddle and guitar is spare yet emotionally reassuring.

Even the deceptively simple title has several meanings: shortest distance between two points; a direct, unadorned account; and, finally, the character's name, Alvin Straight.

He is played by 79-year-old Richard Farnsworth, who made his film debut in 1937, received an Oscar nomination for "Comes A Horseman" in 1979, deserved one for "The Grey Fox" in 1983 and gives an award-worthy performance here. News accounts from 1994, when Straight made his ride - he died in 1996 - suggest he was a cantankerous eccentric. The film flatters him as a proud, flannel-wearing Jack Kerouac, trapped by age but on the road to restore his dignity.

He's lost his driver's license, his hips are bad and he uses two canes. So traveling on a John Deere rider mower with an attached trailer the 240 miles along U.S. Highway 18 from Laurens, Iowa, to Blue River in Grant County becomes an act of liberation, independence and defiance.

With a smile of satisfaction on his face, he travels at a pace that most people could walk comfortably, past cornfields and clapboard houses. Bicyclists speed by. He cooks hot dogs over a campfire, sleeps in his cramped trailer and philosophizes with strangers. His hat blowing off is an action scene in a film that is about the journey, not the destination.

"The Straight Story" was filmed on location, and Lynch gives the homespun material a naturalistic style and a stop-and-smell-the-roses pace; the rustling of trees, sparkling of stars in a night sky, the harvest landscape a changing grid of textures and colors, and the yellow line in the middle of the road made a sight gag as it goes by at a snail's pace.

Mortality is etched beneath the unshaved stubble on Farnsworth's face, and fear and love show in the eyes of the freckled Sissy Spacek, as his developmentally slow, chain-smoking, stuttering daughter. Like the lives of these characters, "The Straight Story" is rich and bittersweet, its plain-spoken common sense found in the monosyllables of everyday life.


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© Mike Hartmann