Review: 'Straight Story' an elegy on slow-moving wheels
October 29, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Director David Lynch's new film, "The Straight Story," is a straight story in every conceivable way, especially in light of Lynch's recent oddball output.
It's the true story of an old man named Alvin Straight, played with graceful decency by Richard Farnsworth. He travels 350 miles by riding lawn mower to reconcile with an estranged brother who's been felled by a stroke. "The Straight Story" generates as much warmth and well-earned tears as any film to be released in 1999.
This is a big surprise coming from Lynch, not because his previous films have been so strange, but because one might have thought that he's no longer capable of showing sympathy for other human beings.
Lynch's career has been mostly built on a perverse disregard for popular acceptance, but that's not to say that's he's unaware of his core audience's expectations. He's practically a slave to them.
"Blue Velvet" (1986) scored big with the hipster crowd because it made their boring suburban upbringings look like hotbeds of clandestine violence and sexual humiliation. It's the key film for people who hated to do yardwork when they were growing up, then moved to the big city and pierced their nipples in retaliation.
With that film's unforeseen success, Lynch quickly turned his grotesque imagination and powerful talent for bent psychological ambience to increasingly peculiar collections of depravity and body-fluid metaphors. Never mind that they didn't make a lick of sense; the scum was its own reward.
Most people forget, however, that he used to display a great deal of tenderness in his films, even when playing the sickest set of cards imaginable. "Eraserhead" (1977), his claustrophobic dreamscape about a lonely young man who winds up saddled with a greasy-skinned mutant love child, can make you cry while you're vomiting. It's largely an avant-garde exercise, but a human heart beats through the film, loud and clear.
Lynch cared about his characters back then, and that compassion carried over into his first studio film, 1980's "The Elephant Man." Even then, he occasionally wallowed in degradation, but the moment at the end of the film when the title character's mother appears in a dream and comforts him on his journey toward death is the most achingly beautiful gesture in Lynch's oeuvre.
But by the time of 1997's "Lost Highway," any and all compassion had been snuffed in favor of "artsy" storytelling inanities and multiple rapes at gunpoint. The only salient points made by this film and 1990's "Wild at Heart" are that Lynch usually can't be bothered with the limits of conventional narrative and that pretentious, art-starved people will sit through pretty much anything.
"The Straight Story," although rated G and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, is still a pretty gutsy move from a commercial standpoint. From the first frame, Lynch allows the story to crawl at the same pace as Straight's 1966 John Deere mower. An opening crane shot moves in at a sleepy snail's pace, and lengthy amounts of screen time are filled with things like Farnsworth limping over to retrieve his hat after it blows off his head.
Straight's daughter, a mentally challenged woman played by Sissy Spacek, even speaks in a halting, disjointed rhythm that plays up the movie's overall indifference to picking up the beat. But Farnsworth's Oscar-worthy performance fills you with the same warm feeling you get when you're falling asleep on the couch on a Saturday afternoon. Not much is getting done, but that's OK when the "not much" is so welcome and comforting.
Veterans of life
The story is about mortality and the joyous mysteries of human existence. Straight -- who doesn't trust other people to drive him places and has lost his own license because of failing health -- is doing something ludicrous. But you soon come to realize that his journey is the perfect metaphor for waking up in the morning and plowing through another day, year in and year out, for as long as God gives us the strength to continue.
Once again, Lynch isn't telling a story in traditional terms. Straight simply rides the mower for a while, meets someone, has a touching conversation, then rides some more.
Some of the best sequences are filmed completely in wide shots, as if we're eavesdropping on people we've spied from across the street. But Farnsworth's watery eyes carry the film in its most emotional moments. Once the tellingly craggy map of his face comes into focus, the scenes reach a transcendent payoff. An early scene in which he explains the strength of a family to a runaway teen-ager is likely to bring a lump to anyone's throat, but the real killer is a meeting between Straight and a fellow World War II veteran in a quiet roadside bar.
The two men slowly open up to each other, describing the wartime terrors that have haunted them for the past 50 years. Their stories free the ghosts from their failing hearts, releasing the trapped spirits of the young men who, all those years ago, were inexplicably denied the right to grow old along with them.
Straight's hope that he and his brother can once again lie on their backs like they did as children and gaze up the stars at the end of his trip is a reconciliation with his maker. His life, like anyone's life, has been an adventure, and the American heartland that he crosses on that mower is presented very much as God's country.
Lynch is dreaming again, but this time he's managed to avoid falling into self-serving nightmares. If you're in the proper mood, the reverie he's painted for Alvin Straight is a lovely, memorable experience.
"The Straight Story" is as G-rated as they get. You should absolutely take your grandparents to see this film. It portrays elderly people as treasures to cherish, and unashamedly celebrates the immensity of their lives even as they're slowing down. Rated G. 118 minutes.
This 'Highway' isn't the only thing that's lost
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