STRAIGHT STORY, THE(director: David Lynch; screenwriters: John Roach/Mary Sweeney; cinematographer: Freddie Francis; editor: Mary Sweeney; cast: Sissy Spacek (Rose), Richard Farnsworth (Alvin), Harry Dean Stanton (Lyle), John Farley (Thorvald), James Cada (Danny Riordan), Jane Heitz (Dorothy), Everett McGill (Tom the John Deere Dealer), Jennifer Edwards (Brenda), Barbara E. Robertson (Deer Woman), John Lordan (Priest), Donald Wieggert (Sig); Runtime: 111; Walt Disney Pictures; 1999)
“The film is most like a timeless spiritual quest.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
David Lynch (Eraserhead/Lost Highway/Blue Velvet/Wild at Heart/Twin Peaks) switches filmmaking gears and goes from his hipster style of making weirdo films to making a simple heart-rendering story of a 73-year-old from Laurens, Iowa, Alvin Straight (Farnsworth-he’s actually 79). He rides his ancient Rehds lawnmower with a trailer hitched to it until that breaks down and he has to splurge for $250 and get a 1966 John Deere to take him the 300 miles he needs to go–which takes a little over five weeks–to see his ailing brother Lyle (Stanton), in Mount Zion, Wisconsin.
The film is most like a timeless spiritual quest, something Alvin feels he has to do in order to make peace with himself and with his brother. This is after a bitter argument which kept him from not seeing or hearing from him for the last 10 years, but now he learns that his brother has just suffered a stroke.
Alvin’s mentally impaired daughter, Rose (Sissy), lives with him after the state took away her four kids due to a fire in the house, even though it was not her fault. Alvin says she got a raw deal from the state, though there seems to be no bitterness in his tone.
Alvin’s eyesight is so poor that he doesn’t have a driver’s license, he walks with the help of two canes, has a bad hip, has emphysema, and is as stubborn as a mule; therefore, even though, it doesn’t make too much sense to travel the way he does, no one can talk him out of it. He will not have his daughter drive him or will he take a bus or let a stranger he meets on the road take him there; he feels that this is something he just has to do by himself.
The film reeks of Midwestern wholesomeness, folksiness, and homespun philosophies. That it works so well, is a testament to Richard Farnsworth’s compelling characterization and the flavor the film captures of the genuine straight people playing straight man to Alvin Straight on the two-lane highway he takes across the Mississippi River to Wisconsin. It features a road show of ordinary folks, consisting of those who can be kind to an elderly stranger who is doing something he probably ought not be doing. Their ordinary lives are put under the microscope in a slow-moving tale that is not in a hurry to get to the end of its journey. The strangers talk and seriously listen to each other, and we as an audience get to know all of them reasonably well. As a change of pace, American viewers might welcome a pause from all the action films and whacky stories they are inundated with and take a reality check to see if they are interested in seeing a film that most of them could have been in.
This is a fictionalized version of a true story that took place in September/October of 1994 and was discovered by the screenwriters from an article in the “N.Y. Times.”
The film plays as if it was a foreign film, since it is rare for an American film to be so self-conscious of itself; it is so interested in just looking at the open blue sky, the blowing wheatfields, the bare streets of a sleepy town, and having its star performer find peace with himself without any reason or big event in the film. It is also a film that knows how to keep proper time with its slow-moving story.
Some of the vignettes worked better than others, but what was always convincing was how the unsophisticated but straight-forward manner of Farnsworth came across in such an appealing way — a way that resembles how many Americans would like to think of themselves.
Alvin’s encounter with a runaway young pregnant hitchhiker, whom he advises to go back home seemed too pat for it to be a moving experience. Yet Lynch handled it correctly by just indicating by her changing facial expressions that something was clicking inside her and that she was becoming less confused about what to do, and by having her symbolically show that she understood what Alvin told her to do. His encounter with an hysterical lady who keeps hitting deer with her car on her way to work, also seemed too overblown to even comment on. Fortunately nothing much is made of this event, except Alvin has the common sense to have some deer meat for his nightly camp fire. But when Alvin’s tractor belt breaks going down a steep hill he is befriended by Danny Riordan (Cada), a retired John Deere employee, who was at the time watching a practice fire exercise in this sleepy-town. He looks upon Alvin as the national treasure he is and takes Alvin back to his yard to camp out while he gets the town’s mechanics, bickering twins, to repair the tractor as Alvin has a go at getting the brothers to relate to each other in a more amiable manner.
The film moves into territory where people of good nature really communicate with each other and offer whatever support they can to each other. Alvin also meets, through Danny, an old-timer he instantly relates to. He tells him the dark secret from his days fighting in WW11, something he couldn’t tell anyone. It is when he was a sniper and had the misfortune of unknowingly killing someone on his side; and, who better to tell this too than this WW11 veteran with such a kindly face. He quietly understood everything Alvin was saying, knowing how farm boys came back from the war with images of the horrors they had been through and couldn’t face themselves anymore and took to drinking. Alvin has already faced his drinking problem and now that he has confessed to what has been eating away at him all these years, he seems to be ready to see his brother again and make peace with him.
Alvin will encounter a priest when he camps out on one of the oldest cemeteries in Wisconsin and they will have a friendly discussion about religion, indicating that there’s not much difference between Alvin’s Baptist faith and the priest’s Catholicism. His last meaningful encounter is with an old-time bartender who serves him a Miller beer and graciously talks the friendly chatter barkeeps throughout the country are known for, before he ends up on the porch of his brother’s shack and is looking up at the night sky.
This film was just right for what it wanted to do; it felt good seeing Alvin’s journey find closure. The sentimentality of the film was kept to the minimum and Lynch did not try to make this small story grander than what it was and that’s a good thing, because the smallness of the story is what made this film seem so elegant.
But in a film that goes only surface deep in uncovering the mythos about small-town America and its elderly, it becomes unfortunate that the filmmaker couldn’t delve deeper and get more out of the story. It seems as if this is a story waiting to be pried open even wider by someone who is not stuck on what seems to be the obvious but wants to make some waves about the politics of such small-town conservatism and question why the towns look so dry and shrivelled-up, the people seem so unintellectual, and the places visited so dull; notwithstanding, how kindly its citizens can act in an emergency. After initially being very pleased with the film, I got to wondering what I learned about Alvin Straight that I didn’t know when the film began; and, though I thought that Alvin’s reflections about his life were genuine, I still didn’t really know what he is all about by the film’s end; even if, I now knew his darkest secret. That is what troubles me most about this film.
There is something about his life that makes me think of Alvin as not only a likable character, which is what I found him to be; but, he is someone who is so set-in-his-ways that he cannot evolve further. He is someone who is so accepting of the “American Way of Life,” that it seems a shame that he can’t find anything to say that questions the America and its institutions he was prepared to give his life for during WW11. Lynch seems to have created a character that buys into all the old traditional values America supposedly cherishes but without reexamining them, such as: family values, religious institutions, and the military. Alvin would make a good poster boy for the “Religious Right.” There seems to be no rebel in him, as Lynch seems to accept his status quo without any hesitation.
Alvin, for all his appeal, just seems to be another blind follower of the so-called American value system. It was difficult for me to see Lynch’s motivations for making this simple story without offering any ruffles in the feathers of American society. Though he certainly has a right to see things the way he does; it, nevertheless, is disconcerting to see a film that is so accepting of the institutional American values without even questioning them.
If this film was meant as a religious quest, which I think it was, then its hero lacked some spiritual qualities and curiosity to change, especially when compared to the lives of other religious figures who had to fight the conformity of society and their own inner being until they were able through their inner-journey to raise their consciousness. But if this is just a mild tale about an old-timer doing something a little ornery, then it works and is pleasant to look at. It works in the same way that it is pleasant to have a conversation on Main Street. It makes you feel good, but is that challenging enough?
I still don’t know what Lynch’s motivation is for making this Walt Disney family value production film, except it seems to be an ode to traditional values. That seems odd coming from him, especially, since he is known, rightly or wrongly, for making films that are supposed to be on the cutting-edge. There was nothing daring about this film, as its appeal is mostly through the magnificent performance of Richard Farnsworth. He’s a movie relic, chiseled in dignity with his weather-beaten face and his geezer-like sensibilities shining through. He is someone beyond criticism and whatever failings or misplaced points there are to his story the film is still a relatively interesting work, retaining something about the American mythos that is worth investigating further. This is a film that is well-crafted, and this is so because Lynch knows how to film a story in a thoroughly professional manner. As for Lynch’s real beliefs, I don’t have the foggiest idea what they are…but as far as this film goes, it is fair to say that he seems to be very accepting of the status quo.
REVIEWED ON 12/19/99 GRADE: B+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ