The City of Absurdity The Straight Story

'Straight Story' Cuts Swath to the Heart

By Desson Howe, Washington Post Staff Writer, Friday, October 22, 1999

Like the 1966 John Deere lawn mower that figures so significantly in the movie, "The Straight Story" cuts a path directly to the heart.

Based on the true story of Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old man who journeyed hundreds of miles on a riding mower to visit an ailing brother, "The Straight Story" chugs through an American heartland ripened to bursting with human goodwill.

David Lynch's movie – the finest he has made since "Blue Velvet" – is serenely bereft of postmodern cynicism. It is about – get this – what is best in people. It stays that way, too, as Alvin (Richard Farnsworth) travels all the way from Laurenz, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wisc., at an operating land speed of five miles an hour. At the end of this emotionally affecting six-week odyssey, if the conclusion doesn't draw tears, it will certainly draw your admiration.

When Alvin falls to the floor because his hips are giving out, it's a sobering wake-up call. The doctor tells him he needs a walker. And thanks to his cigar habit, he may be in the early stages of emphysema.

As Alvin sits on the porch watching a lightning storm, his live-in daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) takes a phone call. Alvin's brother Lyle, who lives in Wisconsin, has suffered a stroke.

"Rose," he tells his daughter, after much reflection. "I'm going to go back on the road. I've got to go see Lyle."

Rose can understand his reaction. But what she can't understand is his intention to get there on his rattletrap mower, hitched to a trailer full of provisions. Alvin points out his poor eyesight prevents him from driving a car. This trip, he emphasizes, is something he has to do alone. Time is creeping up on the brothers and there's a 10-year-old feud to heal.

Ignoring Rose's admonitions and the doubting chorus of old-timers at the general store, Alvin – now moving around with two canes – sets out on the pilgrimage of his life.

Alvin's journey, which follows the same route the real Alvin Straight did in 1994, is sublime for its amusing, sweet-natured encounters with all variety of wayfarers: a cluster of cyclists, a tour bus full of camera-snappers and a pregnant teenage runaway, to name a few.

Alvin's admirably stoic in the face of screaming trucks, driving rain and steep hills, and he's so tender and direct with people, it moves them to help him.

A former John Deere employee offers to take Alvin all the way to Mount Zion. Alvin politely declines, of course. And when a pair of twins set about trying to bilk him of his scant money for repairs on the John Deere, Alvin gently persuades them to reduce their bill, given that a good 20 percent of their labor time – Alvin guesses – was probably taken up with bickering. They melt before his soft-spoken delivery and they reduce the bill.

Farnsworth gives the performance of his life, his glittering eyes like sky-blue windows to the tenderest of souls. Spacek, who seems to get better each passing year, is terrific as Rose, whose stuttery cadence reveals a great big heart.

But what a triumph this is for Lynch and writers Mary Sweeney (Lynch's professional partner) and John Roach. They revel in the delicate nuances of the great Midwest, from the omnipresent furrows to the rushing of wind through the trees, while Lynch's regular composer, Angelo Badalamenti, outdoes himself with a score that's the elegiac equivalent of threshing wheat. Above all, Lynch treats his characters with near reverence. With the passing exception of a woman – hysterical at killing yet another deer with her car – even the minor characters move through life with unvarnished honesty and unself-consciousness. I may never forget Pete (Ed Grennan), the hardware store guy, who agonizes painfully when Alvin asks him to sell his wooden-handled grabber at a cut price.

"Oh jeez, Alvin," he complains softly, "that's a darn good grabber."

THE STRAIGHT STORY (G, 111 minutes) – Contains nothing objectionable. At the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle 2, Regal Rockville Town Center 13 and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington 7.


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© Mike Hartmann