Title: "The Straight Story"
Stars: Richard Farnsworth
Director: David Lynch
Rating. G (absolutely pristine)
Five Words: Simple, beautiful, honest: "Straight" works
David Lynch's "The Straight Story" is an amazingly simple yet brilliant little film, sort of like its title.
It is not something one would expect from David Lynch, he of nasty little fantasies such as "Blue Velvet" and "Eraserhead." This is the Lynch we last saw in "The Elephant Man," a kind, subtle craftsman who draws out spectacular performances from his actors.
Here, that performance is given by Richard Farnsworth, who will not only garner an Academy Award nomination but will probably win it. Farnsworth is Alvin Straight a 73-year-old man who finally decides to mend relations with his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), who has just had a stroke.
With his own health starting to fail, Alvin sets out to make this journey from Laurens, Iowa, to Mt. Zion, Wis., on his riding lawnmower, partly because he has no driver's license, partly because he wants this done his own way.
His subsequent journey takes him to places and meets him up with people and little more. Many of the film's long, thoughtful camera pans focus simply on Alvin riding on his mower or the sky or just the fields in the background. Midwestern life unfiltered.
Somehow, Lynch makes all of this seem about as exciting as any movie this year. We identify and admire the realness of it, even though we don't identify with Alvin. The movie's backdrop takes us to a place Midwesterners are quite familiar with and bathes it in integrity and strength. Like the Midwest, Lynch portrays these stoic characters as they are - sans makeup, frills or any filthy language.
From a script written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, "The Straight Story" is less about the destination than it is the journey, which doubles as a journey back through Alvin's mistakes and triumphs in life. He is no saint, doesn't portray himself as such and is a bit stubborn. It takes a little of that to ride a mower on the road with 30 cars ambling slowly behind you.
So when Farnsworth's character comes across a young runaway (Anastasia Webb) who has a few of the same qualities, his advice is real. His experiences are real. And Farnsworth, who could've been the old man preacher and still made his performance work takes die trickier road, admitting failure and even that he may not know. "The Straight Story" understands, unlike few movies do, what old-age wisdom is really about.
It understands the Midwest, both its beauty and its unrefined nature, perfectly, too. The phrase "colorful character" wouldn't fit here; just as "Blue Velvet" helped redefine new, almost non-binding limits on subject matter, Lynch's latest work redefines the notion of reality. The roles are less about character than they are about ideas of life, embodied by actors, mostly unheralded. It creates a refreshing effect - the film never asks us to identify with the people as much it does with the ideas they convey.
A large supporting cast is led by Sissy Spacek, who plays Alvin's daughter. Stanton is in the film's more powerful scenes as the suffering Lyle.
The film, though, belongs to Farnsworth, and Lynch is a wise enough director to get out of his way; the acting never seems to have been directed, though the movie still has a distinct Lynch feel in terms of camerawork.
It ought to be strange that this particular director can pull "The Straight Story" off. Lynch's last movie, "Lost Highway," was a jumbled mess. Before that was the disaster of "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me." Does it mean he's matured?
Probably not. Occasionally though, he turns out ground-breaking stuff. "Blue Velvet" fit the bill much more neatly. "The Straight Story" lives in an entirely different universe but is maverick in its own way. There are so many movies right now that tell how it ought to be or how they want it to be or how it is even though we know differently.
"The Straight Story" is different, but not because the movie tells it like it is. It doesn't tell at all. It just is.
Copyright 1999 The Daily Nebraskan
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