Straight Story, The (United States/France, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

David Lynch's body of work is surely one of the most recognizable of any living director. From the nightmarishness of his debut, Eraserhead, to the bleakness of Blue Velvet to the bizarrely compelling quality of his TV series, "Twin Peaks," Lynch has defined himself as a filmmaker who relishes peeling back the facade of Americana and exposing the rot that lies beneath. Lynch's penchant for weirdness reached an apex in 1997's Lost Highway, a stylish-but-empty excursion into incoherence. After the movie's dismal box office showing, the director took some time off to compile a book of photographs. Now, he's back on the big screen with The Straight Story, a movie that is completely different from anything we have previously seen from Lynch.

Those who don't know anything about The Straight Story should be prepared for two shocks. First, it's "G" rated. Second, it's being distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. One thing should be stated up front: a "G" rating does not necessarily equate to a children's film. The Straight Story is designed with adults in mind - all but the most precocious kids will be bored out of their minds. This is cinematic food for mature individuals that is devoid of sex, violence, cursing, or nudity. And, as David Mamet proved in his recent G-rated The Winslow Boy, solid entertainment for the over-18 crowd can be found in the "family film" arena.

While watching The Straight Story, I asked myself a simple question: If I hadn't known the director's identity beforehand and hadn't seen the opening credits, would I have recognized this as a Lynch effort? The answer is probably no. Despite the involvement of several of the director's frequent collaborators, such as Angelo Badalamenti (composer) and Mary Sweeney (editor/producer/writer) behind-the-scenes and Everett McGill and Harry Dean Stanton in front of the camera, the generally upbeat tone likely would have confounded me. In The Straight Story, Lynch does not attempt to dissect middle America - he celebrates it. Blue Velvet opened with a shot that burrows beneath the ground to reveal maggots. The Straight Story, on the other hand, starts with a placid view of a starfield. And, although we may be waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop and for the story to veer off in a dark direction, it never happens. For the first time since The Elephant Man, Lynch is playing it straight with us.

The Straight Story also gives Lynch an opportunity to prove to everyone that he's more than just a capable filmmaker. Throughout his career, he has relied on shock tactics to arrest the audience, and this approach has often overshadowed his directorial acumen. That's not the case with The Straight Story, which highlights the depth and breadth of Lynch's talent. From the first scene to the last, he is in control. Every shot is perfectly framed; every sequence is carefully composed and edited for maximum effect. There's still a quirkiness to Lynch's approach, but it's controlled and focused, and the director's flourishes are used for a purpose, not merely as a means of visual punctuation.

The Straight Story is based on a real event in the life of a real person - the kind of thing that often shows up during the final, "feel good" segment of the evening news. Veteran actor Richard Farnsworth (The Grey Fox), in what is arguably the best performance of a long (and somewhat uneven) career, plays Alvin Straight, a 73 year-old man living in Laurens, Iowa with his daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek). Alvin is not in the best of health - he has a bad hip that requires him to use two canes while walking and he has trouble with his vision. One day, Alvin receives a phone call from a family member informing him that his brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), whom he has not spoken to in 10 years, has suffered a stroke. Alvin decides that he must make the 320-mile trek to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, and the only means of transportation available to him is his lawnmower. "I've got to go see Lyle, and I've got to make the trip on my own," he remarks. So, hitching a home-made trailer to a John Deere, he begins one of the most unusual road trips ever committed to celluloid.

The cross-state journey, which takes six weeks during the late summer and early fall, is chronicled episodically. Early in his trip, Alvin encounters a female hitchhiker who spends some time around a campfire with him. She has run away from home, but he gives her the following advice: "A warm bed in a house sounds a mite better than eating a hot dog on a stick with an old geezer traveling on a lawn mower." On another occasion, he encounters a woman who has just struck and killed a deer - her thirteenth such accident in the past seven weeks. There's a lot of Lynchian comedy in this scene. And, while his transport is being repaired after a breakdown, he spends time reminiscing about World War Two horrors with another veteran.

Lynch paces the film beautifully, allowing Alvin's character to be developed in such away that the climactic scene has a genuine emotional impact. The Straight Story moves slowly - which is actually perfect for a motion picture that concerns travel by lawnmower. The cinematography (by Freddie Francis) is evocative, and features numerous shots of autumn leaves and corn fields ready to be razed. At times, the setting is so real that we can almost reach out and touch it. Angelo Badalamenti (the composer of the "Twin Peaks" theme) turns in a wonderful score that enhances the atmosphere without ever becoming intrusive. (As a nice touch, the film is dedicated to the real Alvin Straight, who died in 1996 at the age of 76.)

It remains to be seen whether The Straight Story represents the beginning of a new era in Lynch's career, or whether it's just a brief change-of-pace. Perhaps with his next movie, he will once again return to his examination of the dark side of human nature. Even if that's the case, however, we'll always have this movie to prove that Lynch is not unrepentantly cynical, and that he can make an upbeat picture. The Straight Story may lack the surreal, compelling quality that has defined the director's other seven features, but it is an example of an artist in peak form.

Straight Story, The (United States/France, 1999)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 1999-10-15
MPAA Rating: "G"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1