Once you get past the fact that you’re watching a G-rated David Lynch movie, The Straight Story is a heart-warmingly simple and impossible to dislike slice of warm, eccentric white bread Americana.
“This is a true story,” a based-on-fact account of Alvin Straight, a retired farmer who drives a ’66 John Deere riding mower 320 miles from Laurens, Iowa, to Mount Zion, Wis., just to visit his estranged brother who is suffering the after-effects of a stroke and to put an end to 10 years of angry silence.
“My brother and I said some unforgivable things the last time we met. …and this trip is a hard swallow for me. I just hope I’m not too late.” 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.
But why a lawnmower?
Because Alvin has bad eyesight and no driver’s license. Because he needs two canes to move about. Because he out-stubborns anyone willing to help. He could probably take the bus, but there’s a certain sense of repentance he’s seeking with this pilgrimage, and this is something he has to do alone. Is there a more American story than this?
Lynch is known for his complicated, and this film moves slowly, devoted to the cautious rhythm of its main character, 79 year-old Richard Farnsworth, and the camera just loves his face and surveys it closely, as it would a landscape of old age and understanding.
Lynch, known for complicated projects like Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Lost Highway puts many of his familiar techniques to use illustrating a unique and leisurely story with his engrossing and detailed style. Actor and director understand each other completely, and it is this unlikely relationship that makes The Straight Story a triumph.
And even though his speech-impaired daughter (Sissy Spacek) objects, he builds a plywood trailer to sleep in, stocks up on weenies at the corner store and hits the road. On his journey there are plenty of opportunities for panoramic shots of amber waves of grain and grain towers, which are somewhat even more beautiful).
In a single take of quiet, sun-dried streets Lynch captures the distinct personality of a one-stoplight town. But he couldn’t have made this film the treasure it is without the unique actor Farnsworth, a humble man full of homespun wisdom, befriending a steady stream of strangers; a pregnant runaway, a fellow World War II vet with whom he shares painful memories, a family that takes him in while he gets his brakes fixed.
It’s proudly and distinctly American, yet isn’t old-fashioned or sugary, after all, this is a David Lynch movie! Yet, somehow, The Straight Story belongs to Richard Farnsworth, who portrays as much character and depth 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.