Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Straight Story

The Straight Story (1999) refers to the story of a man named Alvin Straight who drove 300 miles from Iowa to Wisconsin in a John Deere tractor to visit his ailing brother, but the title could also be considered a promise from director David Lynch. Lynch, the master of weird and surreal who has specializes in labyrinth, dream-like plotting and freakish depravity on film, seems to be saying to the audience this movie is not going to be like that; this is going to be an honest, straightforward, and simple account of a man's journey and the people he meets along the way.

Alvin Straight (an Oscar-nominated Richard Farnsworth) lives with his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) in Laurens, Iowa, when he receives a phone call that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin. Alvin, not in the best of health either, resolves to see him before it's too late, but because of his bad eyesight, he cannot drive a car, and Rose is mildly retarded and no good behind a wheel either. Eventually, Alvin hitches a trailer to his lawn mower and begins his slow, steady trek across the state.

If there were ever two entities I would have never expected to work together, it would be David Lynch and Disney, but it happened with The Straight Story. In essence, this a road movie, much of the plot is driven by the various stops along they way, but it is a sweet, simple tale. The journey is challenging and potentially dangerous to say the least, but there aren't any creeps or criminals along the way. Rated G, the movie contains no violence, foul language, or even people that could be classified as bad or immoral. Plenty of characters question Alvin's trip, but there aren't any false conflicts or efforts to stop or discourage him. The strangers he meets all in their own way help him along, even the hysterical woman who hits a deer and drives off; Alvin takes the event in stride, fixing the antlers on his trailer and eating some of the meat. In movies like Blue Velvet and TV shows like Twin Peaks, Lynch finds corruption and evil hidden among seemingly perfect suburban facades, but in The Straight Story there is no rot beneath the surface, and that's a refreshing change of pace.

In his own words, Alvin is a stubborn old fool who has seen everything life can throw at a person. We learn he's a widower and a veteran of World War II still bothered by his experiences there. While he accepts help from time to time, he's steadfast in his determined self-reliance. When told by his doctor he needs to use a walker and quit smoking, he merely gets another cane and continues to smoke cigars. At this point of his life, he's come to far along to change who he is, but now with a possible end to it all just around the corner, he wants to make peace with his brother. "My brother and I said some unforgivable things the last time we met, but I'm trying to put that behind me," Alvin says. "And this trip is a hard swallow of my pride. I just hope I'm not too late."

Being a Lynch movie , there remains some weirdness, although nothing dark or grotesque. The aforementioned woman who hit the deer claims she can't avoid crashing into them on the same stretch of road, and there are the bickering mechanic twins, but most of the different episodes along the way have a simple poignancy: a pregnant runaway that Alvin tells about the importance of family, a fellow veteran of the war also haunted by his experience, and the priest near the end who in a way hears Alvin's confession. At one point, Alvin finds himself being passed by a mass of cyclists in a cross-country race, and he makes camp with them that night. They ask what's the worst part about being old, and he says remembering when you were young. If you spend too much time regretting and thinking about the past, life will pass you by, and you're left all alone.

The cinematography by Freddie Francis is gorgeous. There are so many beautiful shots of the farmland country and small towns Alvin passes through. Also excellent is the music by composer Angelo Badalamenti. I'm not sure what attracted Lynch to this material or what inspired to film it, but I'm glad he did.

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