Straight Story, The (1999) *** 1/2
Directed by David Lynch. Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney. Photography, Freddie Francis. Editing, Mary Sweeney. Production design, Jack Fisk. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Cast: Sissy Spacek (Rose), Richard Farnsworth (Alvin), Harry Dean Stanton (Lyle), Everett McGill, John Farley, Jennifer Edwards-Hughes, et al. A Walt Disney Pictures release. 110 minutes. Rated G.
What's going on? A G-rated, Disney Pictures-distributed movie by the maverick, eccentric David Lynch, whose films include such oddities as "Lost Highway,"" Twin Peaks" "Wild at Heart,"" Blue Velvet ,""Dune,"" The Elephant Man,"" Eraserhead "? Yes, and it's all true -- a true story filmed not on studio sets or substitute locations, but in the real Midwest of America. .
This, one of the very best films of 1999 has no Lynchean puzzles, special effects, quirks, oddities, or violence. It has no disturbing, dark or mysterious elements. It accomplishes the unexpected by being a must for all types of filmgoers from ages 10 to 100.
In non-Anglophone countries the film is titled "A True Story," which it is, indeed. The reason for this small change is that "straight" in English -- but not in other languages -- means "straightforward" and "direct," while "Straight" with a capital S is also the family name of its protagonist.
The real Alvin Straight lived in the town of Laurens, in northern Iowa. In 1994, when he was 73, his intimations of mortality were on the increase. He then learned that his estranged brother Lyle just had a stroke and might die any day. now. Some ten years before the brothers had a fight around rather trivial matters. , and had not seen, or communicated with, each other ever since.
Alvin, though in poor health (among other problems he needs two canes to walk with), decides to visit Lyle, who lives in Mt. Zion, in southwest Wisconsin.
To go from Laurens to Mt. Zion requires motor transport. (A bus might do, but stubborn Alvin won't hear of it). His poor eyesight has deprived him of a driver's license. He has no car anyway. So he resolves to make a long voyage from home on a riding lawn mower. His old one conks out. He purchases an 1966 John Deere, fabricates a trailer -- just a wooden crate on wheels, -- hitches it to the mower and off he goes.
Lynch's propensity for the bizarre is fully satisfied by the peculiarity of this factual situation, without the need to invent anything. The trip will take five weeks and cover, by my calculations, 254 miles. In this most unusual of road-movies, at an average speed of 5 miles per hour, the pace also puts the film at the polar opposite of today's thousands of fast-moving flicks.
Alvin goes up hill and down dale with extraordinary tenacity, eats the supplies he carries, sleeps al fresco, keeps plodding on. His persistance recalls the famous inscription of New York City's General Post Office : "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds".
These words are from the Greek historian Herodotus who referred to the expedition of Greeks agianst the Persians around 500 B. C. The words fit Alvin, as do other ancient stories, as does the Odyssey. , in which Ulysses has a great many encounters. Alvin does too, but unlike Odysseus, most of his are with friendly, warm and helpful Midwesterners. The meetings are sometimes a bit dramatic, often funny, and even include a couple of crooked mechanics who pad Alvin's bill -- but he bests them.
Alvin is played by Richard Farnsworth, who was a revelation in the 1982 Canadian "The Gray Fox," the story of real-life Bill Miner who graduated from stage-coach holdups to train robberies. Farnsworth seemed to spring up from nowhere, although he had been a stuntman, then played mostly minor roles in two dozen movies. In "The Straight Story," only his second leading part I believe, he triumphs again. The old man comes through as wise but not pontificating, communicative in a quiet, ungarrulous way, unfailingly convincing. Without "colorful" or underlined points, he reflects on his age, the passing of years, remembrances, as well as his sadness at a crucial event in his distant past, when he was a World War II soldier.
Farnsworth matches superbly his character's persona-- in weathered looks, voice, intonation, body language and behavior --that any other performer would be as inconceivable in his part. Who but Humphrey Bogart could be Rick in "Casablanca"? The match is perfect.
I imagine that Lynch-ites could engage in subtle analyses of what of the familiar Lynch has been transmogrified into the "new" Lynch. Or what made Lynch select this unusual-for-him subject. The writer-director, twice divorced as befits all moviedom denizens, has been living for years with Mary Sweeney. They have a son. Ms. Sweeney, a producer and editor, has collaborated with Lynch on previous films. Here she and John Roach shine in their debut as writers She is also the editor and the co-producer. If Lynch made this film to please Ms. Sweeney, he was lucky and struck gold.
"The Straight Story" takes a realistic-sympathetic view of Midwesterners without getting "picturesque" or lyrical about their solidity and warmth. What is realistic as well as lyrical is the cinematography by that marvelous Brit Freddie Francis, who, at 82, is three years older than Farnsworth. Among other features, Francis has shot "Princess Caraboo" (1994), "Cape Fear,""Glory," Lynch's own "Dune" and "The Elephant Man,""The French Lieutenant's Woman," "The Executioner's Song," "The Innocents," "Sons and Lovers," "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," "Room at the Top," He has also directed about 30 horror films.
Aside from Mr. Farnsworth, all other roles are small, but each one, no matter how little screentime it takes, is letter-perfect. One of those parts is acted by Sissy Spacek playing Rose, Alvin's sweet daughter who has a mental problem.
Ms. Spacek longtime husband is Jack Fisk whose sober production design in this movie adds much to its naturalism. Illinoisian Fisk is a top art director and production designer ("Days of Heaven,"" Carrie,""Badlands,"" Mulholland Drive, ""The Thin Red Line" etc. ) as well as a fine occasional director ("Raggedy Man, ""Violets Are Blue).
The "auteur" of a film, as the New Wave taught us in the 1950s, is above all the director. It is here too, but with an exceptionally smooth and strong blend of collaboration between the director, the scenarists, the cinematographer, the designer and the musical score (by Angelo Badalamenti). So we might go back to the question of why did Lynch depart from his usual style and content>
In my opinion, Lynch pulled a Cocteau. Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) poet, novelist, playwright, painter, filmmaker and so forth, was a jack of all trades and master of all. When, in the early years of this century, he expressed a desire to do a libretto for the Ballets Russes, their great director/choreographer Serge Diaghilev told him: "Jean, surprise us!" Which he did.
In one of his many surprises, Cocteau, who had done modernistic plays based on Greek legends and mythology, wrote some "boulevard" items which were partly descended from the French dramatists of the 1600s. In times of avant-garde, going back to realism and neo-classicism was, for Cocteau, a way to top the avant-garde. I see Lynch as following the same road and surprising us quite naturally.