The Straight Story

David Lynch began the ’90s with a triumph (Twin Peaks) and finishes it with another one. The Straight Story is based on the true account of Alvin Straight (played here by Richard Farnsworth), a 73-year-old Iowan who sets out to visit his long-estranged brother Lyle, who’s recently had a stroke. Alvin can’t drive — his eyes are too far gone — so he makes the journey on a John Deere lawnmower, pulling along a makeshift trailer where he sleeps and stores his things.

Lynch is best known — some would say most notorious — for his severe, very R-rated shockers exploring the nightside of human sexuality and brutality: Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway. Yet it isn’t at all out of character for him to do this 180-degree turn and make a becalmed, soothing ode to rural life. Lynch, a Montana native, always comes across in interviews as folksy and gee-whiz, despite the heart of darkness beating in most of his work. It’s not an ironic put-on; he really is that way, and The Straight Story brings out a part of him that he’s maybe had to sneak sideways into some of his other movies (Blue Velvet had its folksy moments).

The movie is exquisitely simple, near-plotless, as Alvin makes his slow journey from Iowa to Wisconsin. As always, Lynch draws the scenes out, letting them breathe, giving us time to drink in the images. His measured pacing is completely organic to the subject — a 73-year-old man with two canes, travelling at about five miles an hour on a 1966 lawnmower. We experience life as Alvin does. The cars and trucks zooming by on the highway seem like demons violating the rural space — why are they in such a hurry? There’s a beautifully spooky moment when dozens of bicyclists whoosh past Alvin in a bike race, looking like silent white aliens streaking down the country road, like something out of Close Encounters. Don’t be fooled by the G rating: This is probably the first true art film to come out under the Walt Disney banner.

Veteran actor Farnsworth, who was actually six years older than Alvin when he played the part, gives a stunning near-silent performance. This is a movie of few words (I’d be surprised if the script, by Mary Sweeney and John Roach, came in at much more than 60 pages), with a hero of few words. Lynch and his great cinematographer Freddie Francis get a lot of mileage out of the countryside — the deep blue sky, the rustling corn, the rusty old farm machines chugging in the fields — but the movie is all in Farnsworth’s weathered face, his way of looking at someone and understanding all he needs to understand. “How far along are you?” he asks a sullen runaway girl. She isn’t showing yet; he just knows.

The Straight Story also gives Lynch an opportunity to put slightly askew characters on the screen; as always, he’s not really laughing at them — he respects them, enjoys them for who they are. There’s the set of twin mechanics who fix Alvin’s mower; one of them has a strange bandage on his cheek. There’s the woman who keeps hitting deer with her car no matter how hard she tries not to. There’s the hardware-store clerk who’s moved nearly to tears when Alvin asks to buy the man’s beloved “grabber.” Most radiantly, there’s Alvin’s daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek, who goes way back with Lynch but has never acted for him before), a somewhat slow woman with a vocal hesitancy that hides her essential level-headedness.

This is the only G-rated movie Lynch has directed and probably ever will direct. For that reason, some parents may think it’s a movie they can take their little kids to. While there’s absolutely nothing kids shouldn’t see in The Straight Story, there’s also very little to interest them. The movie is really for mature audiences, and it’s for patient audiences, too. If a meditative pace isn’t your thing, you’d better pass. But for some of us who find subtle, hushed, easygoing movies an immensely refreshing change of pace from today’s usual bang-bang, The Straight Story hits the spot. Leaving the theater, a friend remarked that he’d enjoyed the film, but that nobody would ever say “That movie rocks.” “No,” I said, “it rocks quietly.”

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