Looking back on “The Straight Story” (1999)
by Ellsworth Benchwood
The success of “Twin Peaks: The Return”, now airing on Showtime, has affirmed David Lynch’s already solid status as America’s foremost creator of avant-garde visual entertainments. The show’s original run in 1990 and 1991 gained a cult following, as did Lynch’s influential string of movies “Blue Velvet” (1986), “Wild at Heart” (1990) and “Lost Highway” (1997), each a rare example of so-called “art film” that’s also commercially viable.
All of these works are stamped to exhilarating effect with noir elements moviegoers have come to identify as Lynchian: parallel identity crises, juxtaposition of the horrific with the mundane, hallucinatory and disturbing visuals, creepy exploration of the subconscious, etc., i.e., “weird.” What Lynch thought when he heard the news of Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old widower from Iowa who drove his lawnmower some 300 miles to see his ailing estranged brother in Wisconsin, or rather, what made Lynch decide that was a story he’d like to tell, is anybody’s guess. Then you see Richard Farnsworth’s Academy Award-nominated lead performance in the G-rated “The Straight Story” (1999), and it’s clear.
Facing mortality with deteriorating hips, Alvin lives modestly in Laurens, Iowa with his daughter Rose (played by Sissy Spacek). Their nightly entertainment is watching lightning storms and listening to the sound of a nearby grain elevator. The unadvisable lawnmower usage doesn’t start until 30 minutes in, during which Lynch steadily observes Alvin’s life with Rose, his neighbors and proudly crotchety old friends, all of whom make clearly valid arguments against his plan. Farnsworth plays Alvin as a smart and experienced man who understands the stupidity of what he’s about to do and knows that the stupidity of it is exactly why he must do it. It’s not about getting there as much as it is about getting there alone.
He meets kind people along the way, between interludes of cinematographer Freddie Francis’ gorgeous presentation of the Iowa cornfields along the route that the real Alvin Straight actually took, set to Angelo Badalamenti’s serene acoustic guitar and violin traveling-music score. Alvin’s first encounter is the most important, a hitchhiking pregnant 15-year old runaway who comes across his campsite on the first night of the trip. She’s convinced her family hates her and will hate her more when they learn of her “little problem.”
Alvin tells the girl of Rose’s tragic story of losing custody of her kids, and of a game he played with his own kids when they were little. He’d give them a stick to break, which they could easily, then he’d give them a bundle of sticks to break, which they could not. That bundle, he’d tell them, is family. The touching scene is more than merely Alvin imparting wisdom, because it introduces Alvin’s own need of redemption.
He doesn’t even remember the particulars of his falling out with his brother ten years earlier, and knows that whatever the fight was about doesn’t matter anymore, or won’t if he can just complete the journey. He does know that his many years of heavy drinking, medicating a deep inner pain, surely had something to do with it. The source of that pain is revealed in an encounter with a fellow WWII veteran in an empty bar, in which they exchange war stories that have haunted them. Farnsworth’s monologue, recounting a sharpshooter’s worst nightmare, is unforgettable, his delivery fragile and powerful.
Part of the fun of watching a David Lynch movie is trying to figure out what actually happened – in that sense, this movie is wryly titled. “The Straight Story” is a gently rendered examination a journey of repentance, and how we might find reconciliation and truth in something as simple as sitting together on a porch at night, silently looking up at the stars.