Get it? Because it’s not a total mind-f**k!
Alvin (Richard Farnsworth), an elderly World War II veteran, lives with his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek), who has an intellectual disability. When Alvin hears that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke, he makes up his mind to go visit him and do it all, hopefully, before he dies and they’re both left to feel like they missed out. However, there’s an issue: Alvin doesn’t have a driver’s license and Lyle does live very far away. So what can Alvin do to travel all of this way to see his bro? Well, he hitches a trailer to his recently purchased thirty-year-old John Deere 110 Lawn Tractor, that has about the maximum speed of about 5 miles per hour, and sets off on the 240 mile journey from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin. Of course, he runs into all sorts of colorful and rather normal characters throughout his journey, most of whom offer to drive him the whole way there, with others just telling him to give up. However, through it all, Alvin remains determined, knowing that this may not just be his last shot at regaining some happiness with his brother, but his last shot at regaining some happiness with life in general.
So the inside joke about the Straight Story is that, pun intended, there’s not much else to it, other than just what is exactly presented to us. It’s just a normal, everyday story, told in the most straightforward, easy-to-follow manner imaginable, without any curves or side-turns into the extreme or ambiguous. It is what it is, no questions, meditations, think-pieces, or re-watches necessary.
But the reason why this deserves to be said is because it’s directed by David Lynch who, for what seems like the first and perhaps, last time, ever, made a normal movie. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a problem with his many mind-benders that went on to make him famous and well-known, but at the same time, there’s something to be said for a dramatic change-of-pace like the Straight Story, where it literally seems like Lynch is a whole entirely new person, trying on a new piece of skin, seeing how it fits him, and working with it.
And yeah, it works.
The Straight Story is probably one of my favorites of Lynch’s because there are bits and pieces of it that feel like a Lynch film, what with the sometimes odd, awfully random character interactions, but it is still, after all, a movie in its own right. It’s slow, meditative and yes, old-timey, but there’s something truly charming and lovely in that that not only makes us feel like we’re watching the perfect movie for the whole family, but the perfect movie for anyone wanting a bit more drama and depth to their road-tales about elderly people. After all, there’s plenty out there like the Straight Story that feel it is necessary to dumb-down their material, for the sake of making silly jokes and ham-handed sentimentality.
But Lynch proves to be a smarter director than allowing himself to get caught up in all of that. He knows what the material deserves and doesn’t lose his sight on telling it, without trying to add some sort weird spark onto it. Sure, can it be a bit disappointing to see Lynch so ordinary and plain? Probably, yes. But like I said, a change-of-pace, especially one as solid as this, is a welcome one.
It makes you wish that more idiosyncratic directors jumped out of their wheelhouse a bit and tried some new flavor for once.
That said, the Straight Story proves to be as much of a showcase for the skills that Lynch has, as much as it proves to be for the talent of the late, great and highly underrated Richard Farnsworth. As Alvin, Farnsworth gets a whole lot to do; while he is definitely playing an old-school, do-gooder who likes to wax on about the good old days, he’s also funny, charming and above all else, kind of sad. In fact, there’s a lot of sadness to this character – just by looking in Farnsworth’s pale blue eyes, you can tell that there’s just years and years of anguish and grief piling up, and it works absolutely well for building this character and helping us to understand just what there is about him. After all, he’s just another old guy who wants one last shot at life, so what else is there about him that can be offered?
A lot, it seems and it’s why Farnsworth’s a talent we still miss to this day. We just don’t know it.
Sissy Spacek is also quite good in the supporting role as his daughter, although at the same time, doesn’t get a whole lot to do, except have the occasional conversation with her daddy while he’s on his adventure. That’s probably how the whole rest of the cast plays-off as – they’re there to assist Farnsworth in all of his daily duties. Some are good (like a randomly pregnant teen), some aren’t (the woman who hits the dear is so over-the-top, I’m actually shocked it made it into the final-cut), but for the most part, they’re there to help us fully realize the world that David Lynch doesn’t often portray in his films: The simpler, kinder and more soft-spoken one where people aren’t all monsters and demons, but instead, actual nice, sweet people, who wouldn’t mind helping out an old-timer get to see his long, lost brother.
Consensus: Definitely a change-of-pace for Lynch, but a welcome one at that with a smart, attentive direction, witty, humanistic writing, and above all else, a great lead performance from Richard Farnsworth.
8.5 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Konangal Film Society