The City of Absurdity The Straight Story


By Spliced Online's, October 22, 1999

Farnsworth a revelation in warm David Lynch film about an ol' coot determined to visit his ailing brother

Once you get past the fact that you're watching a G-rated David Lynch movie, "The Straight Story" is a wonderfully simple, impossible to dislike slice of warm, eccentric Americana.

A based-on-fact account of a 73-year-old retired Iowa farmer who drove a 1966 John Deere riding mower 320 miles to visit his ailing estranged brother, it's a ready-made classic allegory about regret, determination and family ties told with heart and completely unassuming honesty by one of the world's most complex filmmakers.

Lynch is known for his complicated, blunt and graphic fare ("Blue Velvet," "Twin Peaks," "Lost Highway") featuring rich visuals and deeply disturbed characters. But here he puts many of his familiar techniques to use illustrating a unique and leisurely story with his engrossing and detailed style.

The film stars 60-year film veteran Richard Farnsworth ("Comes A Horseman," "The Grey Fox") as Alvin Straight, a whiskered, wrinkled, stubborn ol' coot with smoker's lung and a bum hip who, after a decade of estrangement from his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), decides it's time to bury the hatchet after Lyle has had a stroke.

He resolves to visit Lyle, but with bad eyesight and no driver's license, he fixes on the mower as his only choice of transport. (He could probably take the bus, but there's a certain sense of repentance he's seeking with this pilgrimage).

So over the objections of his speech-impaired daughter (Sissy Spacek) – with whom he has a tender, mutual care-taker relationship – he builds a plywood trailer to sleep in, stocks up on weenies at the corner store and hits the road.

Lynch doesn't waste a single opportunity for panoramic shots of amber waves of grain (and grain towers, which are somehow even more beautiful). In a single take of quiet, sun-dried streets he can capture the distinct personality of a one-stoplight town. But he couldn't have made this film the treasure it is without the incomparable Farnsworth, who gives a performance deep with a lifetime of humble, homespun wisdom, as he befriends a succession of strangers – a pregnant runaway, a fellow World War II vet with whom he swaps painful memories, a family that takes him in while he gets his brakes fixed.

If that sounds like the kind of medicinal, TV dinner fare "The Wonderful World of Disney" used to air every Sunday night when you were a kid, remember who is at the helm!

Lynch seizes on a simplicity and honesty rarely depicted in any American film in the last 50 years ("The Grapes of Wrath" comes to mind). "The Straight Story" is sentimental without being saccharine. It's proudly and distinctly American. Yet it doesn't feel old-fashioned and is peppered with the quirks and peculiarities you expect from this director – miraculously without him hitting you over the head with them as he is normally wont to do.

Still, "The Straight Story" belongs to Richard Farnsworth, who portrays as much character and depth in one dialogue-free scene – watching a lightning storm with Spacek through the rain-washed windows of their modest WPA-era house – as most "movie stars" manage in their whole careers.

This is the kind of small, unexpected movie that doesn't draw crowds, but those who see it will feel privileged to have been one of the few.


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© Mike Hartmann