The Straight Story

In 1994, when Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, "The Grey Fox") was 73 years old, he couldn't see well enough to have a driver's license and required two canes to walk. One day, his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) takes a phone call that informs them that Alvin's brother Lyle has suffered a stroke over 300 miles away in Zion, Wisconsin. Alvin, who's a strong believer in family ties, hasn't spoken to his brother in ten years and is determined to visit Lyle and make things right. He builds a ramshackle trailer, hitches it to his riding lawn mower, and sets off on a remarkable journey from Laurens, Iowa in "The Straight Story."

Laura's Review: B+

The oddest thing I've seen on a movie screen this year is "Walt Disney Pictures presents - a film by David Lynch." Yes, that's right. David Lynch, who's given us such great, but horrifically dark, films like "Blue Velvet" and "Lost Highway," has delivered a G-rated film that still bears his unique stylistic stamp. "The Straight Story" is based on a true story written for the screen by Lynch's partner Mary Sweeney (who also co-produced and editted) and John Roach. It's a heartwarming and inspiring tale showcased in America's heartland (Lynch and company filmed along Alvin's actual route). The film's opening is reminiscent of "Blue Velvet," had Lynch's usual blue/gray pallette been replaced by the golds and reds of autumn. We're shown the main street of a small midwestern town, the only occupant a dog running across the street. Cut to an overhead shot of small, neat houses where a woman sunbathes between two of them. The camera crane dips to investigate the front of one of the houses, then slowly curves around to observe the heavy, middle-aged woman get up from her lawn chair and enter her own house to the right. Then the camera noses towards a window to the left from which we hear the sound of someone falling in distress. This turns out to be Alvin, whose friend Bud discovers him lying on the kitchen floor, just as neighbor Dorothy and Alvin's daughter Rose also enter. A small town community and Alvin's physical decline has been elegantly, simply established. When Alvin does set out on his journey, stocked with weiners, his old buddies watch in dismay. Alvin doesn't get far on his initial try with his old Rex lawn mower, but quickly makes a deal for a 1966 John Deere and is on the road again. He meets a runaway pregnant teen and convinces her in his own quiet way of the strength of family ties. He's almost blown off the road by huge semis. He weathers storms in abandoned barns. He's greeted by a bicycling group's camp and encounters near disaster when he's faced with his first hill about three quarters through his journey (his trailer has no brakes). Farnsworth is a veteran actor who can convey deep levels of emotion in a very quiet, unprepossessing way. He handles the conflict of promoting family (while on the way to repair his own stubborn disassociation from his brother) with his eyes. He's a kind, decent, simple man who affects everyone around him, yet never seems saintly (watch how he handles two brothers who repair his mower or the agony of telling a stranger how his). own friendly fire killed a friend in WWII). Look for Oscar consideration next year for this performance. Oscar winner Sissy Spacek's career has been rejuvenated lately in supporting roles ("Affliction"), and her Rose is no exception. She speaks in an oddly halting voice and has trouble discerning the difference between literal conversation and joking (we learn from Alvin later that she's considered 'slow,' although he refuses to believe that). Able support is provided by a cast of relative unknowns (many, Lynch regulars) who never seem anything other than the country folk they're portraying. The film is gorgeously photographed, with fields of rippling wheat surrounding the long narrow highway Alvin travels, by Freddie Francis ("The Innocents," "The Elephant Man"). Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti's score is unmistakeable (often recalling "Twin Peaks" a bit too much). Mary Sweeney's editting suits the laid back approach to the story, yet surprises at the appropriately higher decibel, Lynchian moments (a woman strikes a deer with her car in front of Alvin - Lynch has a thing for car accidents - and then rants about how she's killed fourteen deer in the past seven weeks; Alvin loses control of his mower racing downhill as a small town fire department is on a practice run putting out a burning old homestead in the background). "The Straight Story" concludes with grace - Alvin does find his brother and only the most necessary words are spoken (although Harry Dean Stanton is an odd casting choice as Lyle - he doesn't look anywhere near enough Alvin's age and there's no physical resemblance). While this movie isn't a masterpiece like "Blue Velvet," it may very well be Lynch's most personally felt film to date in a career I anticipate watching for years to come.

Robin's Review: B

A David Lynch film, G-rated, produced by Walt Disney Pictures. Who'd of thunk it. But, that's what we get with "The Straight Story." Based on a true-life journey, it's the story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a 73-year-old mid-westerner suffering from bad hips, the early stages of emphysema, deteriorating eye-sight and the news of his estranged brother, Lyle, suffering a major stroke. The brothers, as family members can do, had a big fight a decade earlier and haven't talked to each other since. Now, Alvin, a resourceful and stubborn man, makes the decision to go see his brother 350 miles away on a riding mower. This begins a very unusual road movie spanning the hearts and minds of Middle America. David Lynch, known for his more avante garde works, such as "Blue Velvet," "Lost Highway," and his foray into television, "Twin Peaks," takes on a subject matter that, on the surface, is made-for-TV fare. Alvin Straight's story, though a triumph of the human will, is basically a story about a guy who traverses two states on a lawn mower. In the hands of the keen eyed Lynch, the story takes on a edge, almost a desperation, as Alvin sees his journey as a necessary purging of his inner spirit. Lynch lends his patented look and feel to much of the story with his recognizable visual slight of hand. Alvin's odyssey begins, abruptly, with his hips giving out. He lay on the floor, helpless, until his daughter, Rose, comes to his rescue. This dependency and news of his brother Lyle's (Harry Dean Stanton) stroke force Alvin to a momentous decision. He can't drive a car, but he can drive his ride-'em mower. Building a makeshift trailer, Alvin stocks up on braunschweiger and wieners, packs up and hits the road amidst warnings by his friends that he won't make it out of town. From here, the meat of the film kicks in as Alvin and his homemade caravan begin the 350-mile journey. Along the way, a fairly routine road movie unfolds as Alvin moves at a snail's pace across the mid-west. He meets a fellow traveler - a young woman running from home because of an out of wedlock pregnancy. Alvin gives his homey advice, comparing her to a stick, easily broken, and how the family is like a bundle of sticks, not so easily broken. The girl sees the old man's sense and is gone the next morning, leaving a neatly tied bundle of sticks. Very symbolic. The rest of the trip has the expected trials and tribulations, with Alvin receiving the kindness of strangers when he needs it most. It's all very life affirming. What makes "The Straight Story" a bit more special than it might have been lay in the talents of the makers. David Lynch can't help but put his touches on the routine road story. The helmer can take a conventional scene and put a very funky twist on it. In one sequence, when Alvin leaves the flatness of the plains of Iowa and enters the hills of Wisconsin, he's about to enter a little town when the drive belt gives on his John Deere mower. As he picks up speed, out of control and moving faster and faster down hill into the town, the local fire department is staging a burn down of an old house. The juxtapostioning of Alvin's plight and the fire raises the tension levels a degree above the norm. This and other scenes are as signature as any done in the past by the director. Richard Farnsworth is the strong suite here as the aging actor and former stunt man conveys how it feels to get old. It's not the fear of age or death, but the possibility of infirmity that makes growing old hard. At one point, when asked about what it's like getting old, Alvin responds: "The worst part about being old is remembering being young." Farnsworth's craggy features, rheumy eyes and cane-assisted gate lend a realistic and human quality to Alvin. The actor has always been a favorite of mine since his debut in the 1982 film, "The Grey Fox." In "The Straight Story," he continues to show his acting ability as he fleshes Alvin into a compassionate, but stubborn, man and a loving father who deeply cares for his slightly retarded daughter, Rose. The performance may not be Oscar worthy come year's end, but it is a solid, sensitive job by the elder actor. Besides Lynch's capable direction, there is an elegance to the look of the film that is brought forth by veteran cinematographer Freddie Francis ("Glory"). Francis captures the beauty of the windblown fields, majestic sunsets and the golden hues of fall in the mid-west with a quality approaching still photography. Other tech aspects are solid but not outstanding. Unknowns and just plain folk populate the supporting cast. Only Sissy Spacek, as Rose, stands out in the small role as Alvin's birdhouse building, daughter. It is yet another supporting role where Spacek shows her recently renewed acting mettle. "The Straight Story" is, really, a pretty conventional story (about an unusual man), but David Lynch's touch is evident and lends his offbeat air to the proceedings. It's a nice story about human will, generosity and family.