The City of Absurdity The Straight Story

A Grand Quest
Triumph and regret in a David Lynch surprise

By RICHARD CORLISS, TIME Magazine, October 25, 1999, Vol. 154 No. 17

On an Iowa roadside, the old man chats with a pregnant runaway. For the girl, family is a prison, to be broken out of. The old man tells her that he used to give each of his kids a stick and say, "You break that." Of course they could. Then he'd tell them to tie some sticks in a bundle and try to break that. And they couldn't. "Then I'd say, 'That bundle–that's family.'" The next morning, the old man wakes up to find the girl gone, with the hint that she'll be returning home. On the ground is a bundle of sticks with a bow tied around it.

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), hero of David Lynch's The Straight Story, brings out the best in people–by talking or listening to them or just by the example of his tortoise-like quest. He is driving his John Deere lawnmower 350 miles to see his estranged brother. Alvin turns out to be your basic Lynch hero: a Kyle Mac-lachlan type, as average as apple pie, who follows his obsessions to heaven or hell. The supporting cast is normal too–and thus vastly weird, because Lynch presents them, as he did the sickos of Blue Velvet, without comment or condescension.

This true tale might seem to have all the narrative momentum of a lawnmower pulling the Cheops pyramid up an Alp. It does move, thanks to the script by John Roach and Mary Sweeney. It keeps finding new ways to make rural decency dramatic. But the soul of the film is in Farnsworth's eyes–great watery repositories of wisdom and regret. "The worst part of bein' old," he says, "is rememberin' when you was young." Alvin's tragic memories give perspective to the triumph of his trek, even as Farnsworth's weathered brilliance makes this movie a G as in gem.


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© Mike Hartmann