erik lundegaard

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The Straight Story (1999)

Early in The Straight Story, director David Lynch clues us in on what kind of movie we're about to watch.

Written by:
John Roach
Mary Sweeney

Directed by:
David Lynch

Starring:
Richard Farnsworth
Sissy Spacek
Everett McGill
John Farley
Kevin P. Farley
Harry Dean Stanton

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor (Farnsworth)

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) of Iowa, hearing that his estranged brother has suffered a stroke, wants — needs — to visit him in nearby Wisconsin but has no way to get there. His driver's license's been revoked because of his failing eyesight, and he's too stubborn to accept the help of others. As he tells his daughter, Rose (Sissy Spacek), he needs to do this his way. So he decides to drive the 300+ miles...on a lawn mower. As he sets out on the right-hand side of a long stretch of American highway, the camera pans up towards the sky, holds there, then pans back down again. It's a common film technique used to signify the passing of time, and in most films Straight would be far along the road by then. But here he's gone maybe ten feet. Lynch's message is clear. It takes a long fucking time to get to Wisconsin on a lawn mower.

The Straight Story is all about slowness. Straight is enfeebled, he needs two canes to get around, so he moves slowly. He talks slowly, too. But there's wisdom in his words, and there's beauty in the world when you slow down to notice it. Not spectacular beauty, but flat, Midwestern beauty. Straight spends a lot of time looking up at the stars and the camera follows his gaze. At times Lynch seems like a genius for how simply he can evoke the most complex emotions. In an early scene, Rose, Straight's fortyish, mentally-impaired daughter, is staring out the window on an evening that has just turned to dusk, in a summer that's about to turn to fall. We see what she's looking at: a stuttering lawn sprinkler. Suddenly a big, brightly-colored ball rolls near the sprinkler. A young barefoot boy comes along and picks it up and then stands there. It's a beautiful scene, in part because it allows the audience to imprint their own emotions onto it. Only later, halfway through the film, do we find out what Spacek's character was probably feeling, and then only as an aside; but, for such a small moment, it adds considerable weight and depth to the film.

Some scenes in which young folks listen to the old man's wisdom ring a little false; and Chris Farley's brothers, playing a pair of bickering brothers, jar the film with their schtick. Yet when was the last time we saw a film that had so many old people in it? Old people acting like old people? The early scenes between Straight and his friends are choice.

Straight's journey, and the people he meets along the way, is a metaphor for the life cycle. He first runs into a teen runaway and some bicyclists (youth). This is followed by a couple (middle-age), a contemporary who reminisces with him about World War II (old age), and a priest in a graveyard (death). Finally Straight crosses a river to meet his brother. When they do get together, Straight's mode of transportation suddenly makes sense. Reconciliation might not have been possible without it.

—January 26, 2000

© 2000 Erik Lundegaard