The Straight Story (1999) is not the kind of film you expect from David Lynch, a G-rated, family friendly tale from America’s most subversive filmmaker. Yet it’s a genuine David Lynch movie. His often mesmerizing, measured pacing, and out-of-step conversational style is put the true story of Alvin Straight, the 73 year old man who drove for six weeks on a riding mower across two states to patch up a decade-old feud with his estranged brother.
Richard Farnsworth, his twinkling blue eyes looking out from under a wispy head of white hair and a scraggly beard, plays the aptly named Straight, a proud, self-reliant man whose will is stronger than his body. In the first scene he lies helplessly on the floor after a fall, unable to get up. He suffers from weak eyesight, bad hips, and emphysema, and he can’t drive a car. “I’ve got to make the trip on my own,” he explains to his daughter, a heartbreaking performance by the luminous Sissy Spacek who turns the lurching rhythm of her speech impediment into something almost musical. He hitches a trailer to the back of his old John Deere and embarks on a 320 mile journey across the rural highways and backroads of two states: a septuagenarian Easy Rider.
Where so many of Lynch’s earlier films have ripped the quaint surfaces of small town life asunder to find the black secrets underneath, The Straight Story is a celebration of small town values set to the unhurried pace of Alvin’s puttering mower. Days melt together as Alvin drinks in the late summer colors of the American Midwest and watches the rain fall from the shelter of a covered barn. Along the way he dispenses sage wisdom, given weight by Farnsworth’s easy sincerity and gentle face, and shares his life story with strangers along the road, doled out in tiny scenes. But the strange Lynch skew is still there as well. The hysterical ravings of a woman mourning over a deer struck after careening recklessly down a sleepy country road is followed by Alvin’s venison dinner under the watchful gaze of a field of stone deer statues.
The Straight Story could easily slide into melancholy and sentimentality without Lynch’s sensibility, an odd mix of up-by-your bootstraps American conservatism and on-the-road romanticism. Alvin and his daughter are survivors buoyed by hope who revel small pleasures in life. The Straight Story is grounded by Alvin’s personal odyssey, the last journey of an old man before he succumbs to the withering grip of age, but it’s the quiet moments of wonder and connection that gives his odyssey meaning.
Lynch works with old friends and colleagues here. The original screenplay was penned by longtime collaborator Mary Sweeney with John Roach, director of photography Freddie Francis gives the film its rural beauty, and Angelo Badalamenti provides the score.
Richard Farnsworth was 79 years old when he earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance, making him the oldest best actor nominee in the history of the Oscars. He won the Film Independent Spirit Award.