Film discussion

The Straight Story (1999) – Throwback 20

David Lynch is an icon, and that isn’t an opinion.

The surrealist filmmaker had a glorious three decade career on the silver screen, baffling audiences with the weird and wonderful, the downright incomprehensible… and The Straight Story. Immediately following another road movie in his usual depraved style, (1997’s Lost Highway) the revered director opted to give us all the Disney-presented, U-rated, almost anti-‘Lynchian’ project, The Straight Story; the wonderfully uncomplicated movie none of us knew we wanted yet.

Displayed here is true story of Alvin Straight (portrayed by the late Richard Farnsworth, in his final role): a man on a mission across the Midwest to visit his estranged brother, recently taken ill. The issue however, is that Alvin no longer has a driver’s license due to his own poor health, and decides to undertake the 260 mile trek from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin atop a 1966 John Deere lawnmower, over the course of six weeks.

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The auteur style of Lynch has always been fixated with presenting the symbols of Americana bright and glistening, and this is no exception. There’s no twist in this road though, no seedy underbelly to juxtapose; The Straight Story is just about as wholesome a depiction of those images as it gets. The American Midwest is as much a character in this movie as Alvin, and we get to know the rolling scapes and the intoxicating spirit of the people behind them. The preposterous nature of the feat seems to bring out the warmth in people… they seem to scale it into their own lives and become all too eager to help. The mower is even brought back from a state of  near total disrepair by those keen to see the arduous voyage completed.

A huge cornerstone of the film (and apparently one of the biggest changes from the real life trip) is the wit and wisdom Alvin shares with the kindly strangers that gravitate toward him. The best and most memorable example of these exchanges is the bar conversation with a fellow World War II veteran who also never quite readjusted back home: “That’s one thing I can’t shake loose. All my buddies faces are still young”.

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The two share horror stories of their time in service in a heartbreaking set piece, adding yet another dimension to Mr. Straight’s plight… he’s incredibly familiar with how quickly life can irrevocably change. Death and the things that make us feel most alive (not that those are mutually exclusive) are concepts explored more than any throughout the duration, and everybody chips into the conversation about what fills their little lives in some way or another.

Sissy Spacek (of Carrie fame) turns in a killer supporting performance as Rosie Straight, our protagonist’s rightfully concerned daughter, a woman with learning difficulties fallen on hard times of her own: the state has deemed her unfit to look after her children. The reiteration of the importance of enduring family life isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s a theme placed with precision and handled with masterful tact. Even in his more chaotic works, Lynch has always loved a punch to the heart… there are many here.

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Despite the film having a fairly modest run time, everything shot has a chance to breathe, in a very fitting way for this absolute celebration of life. The ultimate reuniting with brother Lyle is almost unnecessary by the time you get there; the tapestry of interactions across the film has achieved enough already to send you home happy with something in your heart. The scene delivers nonetheless, short and to the point… it breathes, and then it’s over.

The Straight Story is one of those movies I would recommend to anyone. It’s one of those rare features that garnered outstanding critical acclaim at the time, but wound up unspoken of after the dust had settled. Maybe because it’s the least ambitious delivery in the Lynch catalogue, or that it deviates from his usual bizarre tone so much… but when you get things this right, its praises deserve to be sung and sung again. At its core, it’s so much about what we value and the lengths we’d go to to nurture that; a conversation worth having with yourself both at 19 and 99. There’s no real summation message… no five minute ‘meaning of life’ monologue meant to talk you through what you were meant to take on board, and that’s my favourite element of it all… I actually think that’s the point. There is just the journey. Enjoy it.

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