May 4, 2002 -- "The Straight Story" is an unusual film by David Lynch. It is a G-rated, Disney film and it is told in a very straightforward way. Compare that to "Mulholland Drive." It is like night and day. It isn't even a typical Disney film. It is not about kids or dogs. It is about old people.
The late Richard Farnsworth stars as Alvin Straight, a stubborn man in his 70s who hasn't spoken to his equally stubborn brother in years. One day, he hears his brother has suffered a stroke. He decides to go visit his brother, but he can't drive and doesn't want to take the bus. His solution? Make the 200-plus mile trip on a riding lawnmower. He builds a small trailer to pull behind the lawnmower. His daughter Rose (played by Sissy Spacek of "In the Bedroom") frets as she watches his preparations. She points out that Alvin has bad hips and cannot walk without the aid of canes. Alvin replies defiantly, "I'm not dead yet." Even Alvin's doctor knows better than to mess with this guy.
The plot is based on a true story about a 1994 trip taken on a riding mower from Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin by the real Alvin Straight. The film was shot along the actual route of the trip. The images captured by cinematographer Freddie Francis ("The Man in the Moon") reflect the essence of life in the rural midwest, endless fields of corn, farm equipment, barns, farm houses, tractors rolling slowly down the road. Alvin encounters a number of people along the way, a hitchhiker, bicycle racers, people who help him when his mower breaks down. A fellow World War II veteran tells Alvin of his pain and Alvin reveals his own painful war secret.
The hitchhiker, a young girl, admits to Alvin she has run away from home and is pregnant. She doesn't want to tell him her story at first, but Alvin's patience, his perceptiveness and wisdom prevail. The scene is typical of the rest of the film. Lynch does not push it. He allows the scene to develop with liberal doses of quiet time. The story seems to reveal itself naturally, like a flower bud opening up. The musical score by Angelo Badalamenti ("Arlington Road") with its rich melodic guitar strains weaves its way into the fabric of the film beautifully. The main thing that keeps this film on track is the rock solid foundation of Farnsworth's acting. Farnsworth's expressive face and eyes convey deep emotions with great subtlety and dignity. Farnsworth should have won the Academy Award for best actor in 1999, in this, his last film performance. It would have been a fitting epitaph a long career that began in 1937. More than that, he deserved the win, not just his second Oscar nomination. Spacek, of course, is a wonderful actress. Harry Dean Stanton also appears briefly in the film as Alvin's brother, Lyle. The Farley brothers, John and Kevin, appear briefly in the film in a comic sequence that seems out of place, as does a bizarre sequence involving a car and a deer.
One of the things that works well in the film is the opening sequences featuring Alvin's small circle of friends, a bunch of old geezers set in their ways. In one funny scene, Alvin has fallen and can't get up. One of his friends arrives to check on him, but he is more concerned about Alvin messing up his scheduled activities at the local bar than he seems to be about Alvin's condition (he just needed somebody to help him up). These scenes reminded me of so many people I've met. The journey, similar to many "road" films reveals much about the heartland of America. Hardworking, decent, caring people we see in the film are instantly recognizable to those of us who live, or have traveled through these vast stretches of highway in the U.S. This is an America seldom seen in Hollywood films. More than that, the film is about Alvin's emotional journey. In quiet ways, the film shows us the emotional firestorms of Alvin's past that have tempered his character. The film also shows us how one life can touch many others. It is a quiet film that the heart hears loud and clear. This film rates a B.
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