The viewer need not know David Lynch’s reputation before seeing The Straight Story, but it helps. Here is a writer-director celebrated for his eccentricities, his disregard for convention, in such works as “Twin Peaks” and Blue Velvet, who has now done a picture released by Disney, a picture based on the true story of an old man making a sentimental journey. Anyone ignorant of Lynch who sees The Straight Story will need an extra mite of patience to allow its beauty to unfold; others will be curious from the start about why this unconventional filmmaker chose this material, and that curiosity will speed up the unfolding.
The title is not really a pun: it simply uses a fact with a smile. This is a story about a man named Straight. In 1994 Alvin Straight, a seventy-four-year-old resident of Laurens, Iowa, traveled eastward across the state to visit his brother, Lyle, in Mount Zion, Minnesota. Lyle had suffered a stroke. Alvin wanted to see him before both of them passed on. He wanted to patch up relations with Lyle, whom he loved but with whom he had quarreled badly. Alvin was too infirm to drive a car, so he made the long trip on the only vehicle he could still manage, a lawn mower, to which he hitched a small trailer. It took Alvin many weeks to reach Mount Zion (this name is another useful coincidence), camping along the way and occasionally receiving hospitality from people he met. But he accomplished both his aims. (Alvin died in 1996.)
The story itself is Readers Digest material. But with a concise screenplay by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, distilled in its dialogue and committed to verity of character, Lynch has made a small epic that echoes and enlarges in memory. He begins by insisting on the usual tempo of a Lynch film, an unapologetic adagio, implying that anything worth looking at is worth more than a hurried glance, unafraid of the latter-day shrunken attention span. Lynch’s measured, attentive gaze assures us that he takes his story very seriously, and, unlike some other Lynch material, this story is so plain, so devoid of grotesquerie, that we soon see why he cannot be anything but serious about it. The subject is homespun, folksy; but to follow it with Lynch is to see Norman Rockwell become Thomas Eakins.
This is a resonant journey through a troubled life, encased in a grand deployment of the American heartland. We move through Alvin’s past, including boyhood memories, memories of service in World War II, and the story of the seemingly impaired daughter who lives with him; but it is also a gallery of today’s heartland people, including a runaway teenager whom he befriends and a Roman Catholic priest who befriends him (a Baptist, as he tells the priest). It is also, through the camera of the accomplished Freddie Francis, a poignant sprawl in the wide Midwest.
Soon we see that Alvin intends more than a brotherly visit. He refuses proffered transportation along the way because he wants to suffer the hardships of this journey; it is a penance, an expiation of past misjudgments. This journey is a gift that he is fashioning for his brother, as a craftsman might finish a fine object, which he wants to present to Lyle by the very fact of his arrival on this snail-paced lawn-mower; so he must make this trip alone, this trip that at first looks ludicrous and cranky but that soon seems a spiritual pilgrimage.
Every detail in the film is perfect. Something that is often overlooked in pictures about rural America is carefully tended here: the people’s accents. I’m not able to say that they all speak like Midwesterners, but they all sound credible as country people, and every role, no matter how small, from the dealer who sells Alvin the new lawn mower he needs (Everett McGill) to another old man with whom he exchanges grim war memories (Wiley Harker)—every role is put in place like a small gem in a crown. Harry Dean Stanton, who has perhaps two minutes onscreen at the end as Lyle, is, in a grateful word, fulfilling. Sissy Spacek gives Alvin’s daughter warmth and the requisite secret scars.
But all these excellences would come to little without Richard Farnsworth. Born in the same year as Alvin, wrinkled and skinny and white-bearded, quiet yet dogged, Farnsworth performs a miracle. He has been knocking around in films for at least forty years, has been everything from a stunt man to an extra to a minor supporting player, and has sometimes had prominent parts in the Wilford Brimley vein, the by-cracky likable old hick. Here, no doubt aided by Lynch, Farnsworth understands his role as the one toward which his whole life has been winding, as if he were stepping into a better reincarnation of himself. It won’t suffice to say that he never makes a false move: the highest compliment I can pay is that he made me think of the great Victor Sjöström in his last role, in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Sjöström played an old professor journeying to a university town to receive an honorary degree, revisiting his life along the way—a valedictory performance by an important figure in film history. Farnsworth, arriving from a quite different past, places Alvin in the same company as Sjöström’s professor, an archetypal portrayal of an old man near the end. Farnsworth’s voice lingers in the mind. At one point a young man asks Alvin, in a friendly way, what the worst part is about getting old. Alvin says: “The worst part is rememberin’ when you was young.”
But The Straight Story goes past honesty. Without satire, with calm admiration, it presents a national self-image. Every country of which I have any knowledge has such a self-image. America likes to think of its ideal personification as a self-reliant, stubborn, humane yet taciturn, courageous loner—or at least someone who is willing to be alone if the situation demands it. (John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart.) Lynch’s film is bifocal: it treats Alvin with complete authenticity, yet it also sees his story as an ideal—senescent this time, yet essentially the cherished romance.
Congratulations to Lynch and Farnsworth and everyone who contributed to this extraordinary film.
The New Republic, November 15, 1999