The Straight Story
John Roach, Mary Sweeney
Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Harry Dean Stanton
Buy on DVD
One of the defining characteristics of director David Lynch is his reliance on dream worlds and bizarre events to tell his stories. So, when a film like The Straight Story comes along, you can’t help but wonder if he’s trying to stretch himself, if he has had this kind of material in him waiting for release or if it has some secret twist that makes it like all the rest?
Character actor Richard Farnsworth takes on the role of Alvin, an aging farmer whose life is slowly slipping away and he has decided it’s time to make amends with his estranged brother before they both depart the world. Farnsworth’s performance is cantankerous, sweet and unabashedly clever. He plays Alvin like your talkative, cooky grandfather who regales you with old stories as a parable for life’s great mysteries. Whether he’s actually wizened in his old age or full of crap, you can’t always tell, but when you look at the words from a position later in life, they begin to make a world of sense.
What Lynch does with Farnsworth and the stories is something surprising: he let’s them play out without ludicrous flashbacks or crazy dream sequences. It’s like we’re seeing a mature filmmaker tackling a serious narrative without the need for confusing the audience. It is a straight story.
But this is Lynch, so there has to be something unusual going on, right? The only off-the-wall idea or event in the entire film is that Alvin prefers to make the cross-state trip from Eastern Iowa into Wisconsin on his lawn tractor. His lengthy sojourn, something that would have taken maybe an hour or two by car, stretches to a week-long affair on the back of an aged tractor, which, like its owner, is ailing. The tractor is Alvin. Early in the film, the catalyst for this last-minute decision for redemption is that Alvin has tumbled in his house, his age getting the better of him. Assisted by a pair of walking sticks, Alvin takes his mower out on the road where it falls apart on him within the day. And like his new walking aides, he purchases a new (still over 20 years old) tractor to re-start his journey.
Apart from Farnsworth, who keeps Alvin grounded without seeming like a crackpot, there is an array of brief characters along the way who don’t make much of an impression, but he is accompanied briefly by stellar support from Sissy Spacek. A fascinating actress who’s most popular films found her portraying legendary country singer Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter and the psychic teen Carrie has never turned her name into a paycheck. In The Straight Story, she exemplifies most of her career by creating a memorable character even if she’s only in a small portion of the film. The tendency for most actors to take a handicapped person and lay on the mannerisms and stereotypes heavily is virtually non-existent here. Spacek lovingly crafts Rose from a centered, compassionate position and keeps the tone light and earnest.
The Straight Story feels like screenwriters John Roach and Mary Sweeney (Lynch’s wife) went into a nursing home and asked every octogenarian a story of their lives and melded each into the screenplay. Some of the tales feel a bit tall and some don’t seem to have much of a purpose, but they all flow so effortlessly from Farnsworth that they still charm you. Being based on a real person doesn’t hurt the richness of story either. The real Alvin died three years after completing this film’s documented trek but not before sharing his story, enabling Lynch to create one of his most relatable stories to date.
Longtime Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalementi is back as composer for this film. If you’ve ever listened to a Badalamenti score (most notably his Twin Peaks works), there is an unmistakable style. Each of his works has an almost translucent jazzy quality as if you’ve dipped your head into the clouds and listened to the sounds the sky makes. And the opening credits music is undeniably his. However, after that, much of the incidental music and Alvin’s key theme are unlike most of what I’ve heard from Badalamenti. It’s an honest, homespun melody that you can’t help hum to yourself when the film is finished.
Sweeney, who also works as editor for the film, seems to have taken a hands-off approach to the bulk of the material, causing it to drag in places. Though, it does support the elderly quality of its protagonist. Alvin doesn’t mind spending a whole day riding along the highway on his tractor and even though it makes for a lengthy feature, it almost doesn’t bother you either. A lot of that is thanks to the rich cinematography of Freddie Francis. It’s not the colorful hues we’re used to from Lynch who often over-saturates his palettes, so the nice departure further keeps the straight story on the road and not in the sky.
The film is a series of metaphors exposing the frailties of the human body, but celebrating the endurance of determination. So, you can see crumbs of Lynch’s past work, but the abject lunacy you normally get from his films like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive is set aside so the audience can relate to and hopefully glean some wisdom from his film.
September 16, 2011